Simanaitis Says

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I THOUGHT “genius” was a straightforward word, a person of super-high intelligence. However, my old friends Merriam and Webster offer more nuanced definitions and a particularly interesting etymology. For instance, I didn’t know that “genius” carries with it a moral sense.

Any thoughts of ”a very stable genius” can be laid to rest.

Merriam-Webster includes five meanings for “genius,” plural “genii” or “geniuses.” The last of five, and 5 c at that, is “a person endowed with extraordinary mental superiority; especially: a person of very high IQ.”

Image from

Given that we don’t even have knowledge of tax returns, we’re not likely to know IQ. And, in fact, other meanings of “genius” are more interesting than merely “being, like, really smart.”

Ancient Rome. M-W’s first definition of genius is “an attendant spirit of a person or place, a person who influences another for good or bad.” This traces back to ancient Rome. Its polytheistic beliefs had gods and goddesses of love (Cupid), war (Mars), the sea (Neptune), marriage (Juno), wisdom, education, science, and like that (Minerva), and even doors (Janus), among other things.

Aequitas, the Roman god of fair trade and honest merchants.

The Romans also had spirits existing between gods and humans. These spirits, according to M-W, “were thought to accompany each person through life as a protector.” Such a spirit was called a genius, from the Latin verb gignere, “to beget.” Part of its role was to protect a person’s moral character.

No cheap thoughts about porn stars, please.

Evolving Etymology. M-W continues, “This sense of ‘attendant spirit’ was first borrowed into English in the 14th century…. In time the meaning was extended to cover a special ability for something, and eventually genius acquired senses referring … to ‘very great intelligence’ and ‘people of great intelligence.’ ”

M-W’s second meaning for genius is “a strong leaning or inclination, a penchant.’ (By the way, Sherlockians may recall Holmes’ pseudo-French pronunciation of penchant: pawn-CHAWN.)

Other Nuances. M-W’s third genius is described as “a peculiar, distinctive, or identifying character or spirit.” An example: “the genius of our democratic government.”

No cheap shots about the shutdown, please.

Its fourth definition describes the plural genii and its relation to a jinni, which sends us off to an entirely different world. According to Wikipedia, Jinn comes from the Arabic الجن, al-jinn, and “are supernatural creatures in early Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.”

Imam Ali Conquers Jinn,, 1588, artist unknown, 1588. The image from the Golestan Palace, Tehran, Iran.

Let’s just admire the art and not get into a squabble about mythology versus theology. There’s enough dissension in the world as it is.

The Genie. On a related note, it was Aladdin who allegedly rubbed an oil lamp, Genie appeared, granted him a wish, and all hell broke loose. For clarification (it was actually Aladdin’s mom who did the lamp rubbing), consult “The Origin of the Genie in the Lamp.”

Aladdin and the Genie. Image from “The Origin of the Genie in the Lamp,” article by John Bardinelli.

The fifth M-W definition cites “a: a single strongly marked capacity or aptitude,” e.g., a genius for self-invention, “b: extraordinary intellectual power especially as manifested in creative activity,” e.g., Beethoven was a musical genius. And, finally, that jazz about being, like, really smart getting us into this in the first place. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

One comment on “A GENIUS? THINK AGAIN

  1. sabresoftware
    January 25, 2018

    Brings to mind my favourite “definition” for the word “expert”: the person who is slightly less confused than the rest of us (on a given topic).

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This entry was posted on January 24, 2018 by in I Usta be an Editor Y'Know and tagged , , , .
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