What's in a Word | All Blogs

Watched over by a genius

By Debra Dobbins

In its meaning of someone who’s exceptionally intelligent, the word “genius” has been in English since the 1640s, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

In that sense, the word is creeping up to its 400th birthday. It is, however, much older, but in a slightly different sense. The Online Etymology Dictionary also notes that it came into English in the late 14th century as a "tutelary god (classical or pagan), from Latin genius ‘guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth.’”

Apparently, the word’s meaning eventually drifted from having the special guidance of a deity to possessing special skills, talents or intelligence.

Knowing that the word originally meant a guardian spirit makes it easier to understand this observation by English playwright Joseph Addison: “If you wish to succeed in life, make perseverance your bosom friend, experience your wise counselor, caution your elder brother, and hope your guardian genius.”

Addison is hardly the only great writer to write eloquently on “genius.” Commenting on the word in its more modern sense, Edgar Allen Poe wrote, “The true genius shudders at incompleteness - and usually prefers silence to saying something which is not everything it should be.”

Joseph Addison by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Photo of portrait courtesy of Wikipedia



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