Can genius be used as an adjective?
September 2, 2004 12:28 AM   Subscribe

Can genius be used as adjective, as in this example from the BBC: "Send Dave your genius idea."? If so, why? [More Inside.]

Given the meanings of genial in English, is there a way of translating the meaning of genial in the Romance languages?

The standard application is to brilliant, genius-like creations by people who are anything but geniuses, often ironically, as in:

"Neil Diamond's I Am, I Said is (genial)".

Genius-like isn't really satisfactory and I would prefer a simple adjective to another noun, like masterpiece, much less sheer genius, pure genius, etc.

Many thanks for any help you might give me.
posted by MiguelCardoso to Writing & Language (29 answers total)
It's current UK slang, Miguel. Probably back-formed from 'That's pure genius!' -> 'That's genius!' -> 'Send us your genius idea.'
posted by rory at 1:21 AM on September 2, 2004

...So unless your character is from the south of England and under thirty or so, it'll probably sound false.

Something like 'brilliant' might work better.
posted by rory at 1:24 AM on September 2, 2004

"That's genius!" would be good anywhere in the commonwealth, I would have said.

"What kind of genius idea is that?" on the other hand, is clearly Yiddish in inspiration.

If you're not happy with "is genius" (which sounds quite idiomatic to me), or "is a work of genius", then "brilliant" may be your next best bet for sarcastic praise.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:47 AM on September 2, 2004

Nouns can generally be used adjectivally in English (house paint, shoulder pads). Though some grammarians would map those as straight-up noun phrases, there are some usages that suggest people intend the words adjectivally ("I'm going to a dinner party and a party party").
posted by joeclark at 4:53 AM on September 2, 2004

This is a very Wm Strunk thread.

(Not so much, but you get the idea.)
posted by Shane at 5:28 AM on September 2, 2004

joeclark, they can, sure, but this adjectival use of genius is a distinctive part of UK slang at the moment, which would be why Miguel saw it on the BBC site. It's not just an ad hoc usage.

Having now followed that link, I'll add that Dave Gorman is in fact a genius (of the comic genus).
posted by rory at 5:39 AM on September 2, 2004

Thanks a lot rory, joe and joeclark for your valuable comments which give context to the query and help to localize the problem, as well as educating generally.

I did consider brilliant but, in my UK-English experience, brilliant tends to be sincere and imply a dazzling, shining distinction. Unless its use is openly sarcastic, I don't think it would correspond to the Portuguese, French, Spanish or Italian use of "genial", which can be both sincere and ironic, depending on the semantic freight and direction of the sentence. To me, brilliant is brilhante.

Perhaps the problem has to do with the straightforward relation between noun, adjective (and adverb) in the mainly Latin languages - genius; genial; genially and the richer confusion that arises from doubly-sourced languages like English, where subtle differences can be harvested between, say, understand and comprehend.

I desperately need an English approximation of genial which relates directly to genius much in the way that idiots savants, although mentally challenged according to conventional tests, are capable of outstanding intellectual achievements.

If I say "So-and-so is a complete cretin but his [unconventional] tomato soup is brilliant", the resulting (unwelcome) idea is that he is somehow, redeemingly, very good at something [tomato soup]." What I need is an adjective that says something like "Although he's an idiot and has no idea of what he's doing, his tomato soup, however disgusting, is not only very unusual but valuable for the issues it raises about tomatoes and soup but for its wider applications to cooking and society in general."

Put another way: "Picasso was a genius but this ceramic plate is anything but genial."

I realize I've complicated my question, dammit! :)
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:49 AM on September 2, 2004

And Shane too!
posted by MiguelCardoso at 5:52 AM on September 2, 2004

In U.S. usage, genial is "hail-fellow-well-met," backslappy-handshakey. It's nothing to do with genius as in "super smart". Just to throw that in.
posted by luser at 6:24 AM on September 2, 2004

May I suggest 'the dog's bollocks', not because of its aptness for your purpose, but merely because it is a phrase I love?
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:52 AM on September 2, 2004

As in : "Although he's an idiot and has no idea of what he's doing, his tomato soup is the dog's bollocks."
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 6:53 AM on September 2, 2004

I think in this case your knowledge of language and bilingualism is tripping you up, Miguel. Genial and genius come from the same root, but in current usage are unrelated, as luser says.

Having a pleasant or friendly disposition or manner. Conducive to life, growth, or comfort; mild: "the genial sunshine . . . saturating his miserable body with its warmth" (Jack London).
[Latin genilis, festive, from genius, spirit of festivity; see gen in Indo-European roots.]

Although one dictionary claims:
[From Greek geneion, chin, from genus, jaw. See genu-2 in Indo-European Roots]

1. a. Extraordinary intellectual and creative power. b. A person of extraordinary intellect and talent: "One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius" (Simone de Beauvoir). c. A person who has an exceptionally high intelligence quotient, typically above 140.
2. a. A strong natural talent, aptitude, or inclination: has a genius for choosing the right words. b. One who has such a talent or inclination: a genius at diplomacy.
3. The prevailing spirit or distinctive character, as of a place, a person, or an era: the genius of Elizabethan England.
4. pl. ge·ni·i [ jn- ] Roman Mythology A tutelary deity or guardian spirit of a person or place.
5. A person who has great influence over another.
6. A jinni in Muslim mythology.

[Middle English, guardian spirit, from Latin; see gen- in Indo-European roots.]

If you just want a grammatically correct adjectival form of genius, I'd use brilliant. Brilliant has different colloquial usages these days, but in your context it would mean genius as an adjective.
posted by Shane at 6:59 AM on September 2, 2004

posted by the cuban at 7:05 AM on September 2, 2004

That's the colloquial use of brilliant I was thinking of, cuban. I love that usage of brilliant, actually.

A Dubliner friend of mine used it a lot. For example, his sister put a colored stone in their fishtank, and somehow it just looked perfect, setting off all the colors of the fish and the gravel and water. And he looked at it and said, "That fookin' rock is BRILLIANT!"

Obviously the rock wasn't a genius, and had no I.Q. at all. It had the I.Q. of a rock. But I guess it was brilliant as if the whole scheme of the aquarium were somehow planned out in advance (it wasn't), and was a brilliant idea.

Brilliant most often came to mean a situation that, although haphazard, had all the makings of a divine plan:

"You mean we can use the car for the Friday night, and we have three cases of beer that we can fit in the boot with ice??

posted by Shane at 7:14 AM on September 2, 2004

If it helps, the common adjectival form of "genius" is "ingenious". Maybe it would help to think of simpler words, like "clever". There are certainly words that can be used with that sincere/ironic mix. That was a creative tomato soup, don't you think?
posted by transient at 7:22 AM on September 2, 2004

Might be worth noting that "Brilliant!" is 100% UK-and-so-forth. In the US, "cool" is much more likely to be used, in more or less the exact same places.

Doesn't "great" intersect with genial in the appropriate ways?
posted by mwhybark at 7:30 AM on September 2, 2004

If it helps, the common adjectival form of "genius" is "ingenious".

Ingenious has taken on an odd usage though, hasn't it? You'd say an invention is ingenious but you'd rarely say a genius is ingenious. Unless the genius invented an ingenius invention, then he is not only a genius, he is also exhibiting ingenuity.

And clever in the States is more "tricky" or "ingenious," while in the UK it can be just generically "smart." In the States you wouldn't say a child who gets good grades is clever, but a thief or a cheat is often clever.

posted by Shane at 7:31 AM on September 2, 2004

"Picasso was a genius but this ceramic plate is anything but brilliant."

Sorry. Is there a GrammarFilter somewhere to discuss stuff like this? vraxoin loves to split grammar and language hairs too. He's the guy who wrote the critique of Alanis Morrissette's Ironic.
posted by Shane at 7:38 AM on September 2, 2004

Interesting. I would say that ingenious could apply to a person ("he was an ingenious man"), but anyway, I think it is the tomato soup Miguel wants to describe. All that aside, I don't actually think that ingenious has the shade of meaning he's after.
posted by transient at 7:42 AM on September 2, 2004

I would say that something ingenious exhibits particular cleverness.
posted by kenko at 7:47 AM on September 2, 2004

"Although he's an idiot and has no idea of what he's doing, his tomato soup is _______"

For this blank, I would say "compelling." Also, I use the word genius in the way you describe [East Coast US-ian], most frequently in the phrase "Well, what's your genius plan, then?"
posted by jessamyn at 7:56 AM on September 2, 2004

Back to the original question:

Given the meanings of genial in English, is there a way of translating the meaning of genial in the Romance languages?

The standard application is to brilliant, genius-like creations by people who are anything but geniuses, often ironically, as in:

"Neil Diamond's I Am, I Said is (genial)".

I don't think English has such a word, Miguel. "I Am, I Said is the work of an idiot savant" might come close. But it's not really what you want, which I think is, "This guy's a fuckwit but he [got lucky] [had a stroke of brilliance] with [such and such project]," summed up in a concisely snarky adjective (English version of the Romance definition of genial) that describes the project and defines its creator as an idiot.

The Romance definition of genial is really interesting, though, so thanks for that.
posted by Shane at 8:43 AM on September 2, 2004

I think Shane's right that there isn't a single word that you can put into "I Am, I Said is ____", but perhaps you could use a weaker adjective and imply the correct amount of snark. Sort of damning with faint praise? "That is an intriguing soup." Or "innovative". If I'm understanding you correctly.
posted by transient at 9:11 AM on September 2, 2004

"Fantastic" may be the word you're looking for.

Equal parts "superb" and "strange," it has the flexibility you're looking for, and as a bonus, it's employed somewhat equally ironically and earnestly in everyday speech (at least here in the U.S.)
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 2:33 PM on September 2, 2004

If so, why?

Because English is the most dynamic and pragmatic language on the planet. Almost any English speaker can understand 'genius' being used as an adjective, even if it's not legally 'right'. Many terms and usages were once considered bizarre, but have found their way into official use.
posted by wackybrit at 2:44 PM on September 2, 2004

Actually, on second thought, "genius" is of course the right word. It's totally acceptable useage and is almost always used ironically.
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 3:38 PM on September 2, 2004

'Brilliant', 'fantastic', etc are too mundane and workaday. Miguel, if I know him at all, doesn't want something that describes superheroes or the sergeant-majors shoeshine.

According to, there is an obsolete usage in English:

\Gen"ial\, a. [L. genialis: cf. OF. genial. See Genius.] 1. Contributing to, or concerned in, propagation or production; generative; procreative; productive. ``The genial bed.'' --Milton.

Creator Venus, genial power of love. --Dryden.

2. Contributing to, and sympathizing with, the enjoyment of life; sympathetically cheerful and cheering; jovial and inspiring joy or happiness; exciting pleasure and sympathy; enlivening; kindly; as, she was of a cheerful and genial disposition.

So much I feel my genial spirits droop. --Milton.

3. Belonging to one's genius or natural character; native; natural; inborn. [Obs.]

Natural incapacity and genial indisposition. --Sir T. Browne.

4. Denoting or marked with genius; belonging to the higher nature. [R.]

Men of genius have often attached the highest value to their less genial works. --Hare.

Genial gods (Pagan Mythol.), the powers supposed to preside over marriage and generation.
I suggest that we start a campaign to reintroduce that sense, and solve Miggy's problem at the same time.

posted by dash_slot- at 4:57 PM on September 2, 2004

A tangent. Joeclark: the "party party" construction is probably a case of a particular kind of "reduplication" (like table-schmable), meaning that not only is the first party not an adjectival use, the whole thing isn't really even a noun-noun compound. There's a long paper by Ray Jackendoff et al. (can be found on his website) talking about this construction in depth, though it may be rather technical for non-linguists. One piece of evidence would be that there must be focus (i.e. a "pitch accent" or what sounds like a strong beat) on the first "party", which is not the case for normal adjectives or N-N compounts. They discuss much more.
posted by advil at 9:13 PM on September 2, 2004

One piece of evidence would be that there must be focus (i.e. a "pitch accent" or what sounds like a strong beat) on the first "party", which is not the case for normal adjectives or N-N compounts

This is not necessarily true of adjectives. While someone would not stress 'red' in 'I own a red car', they might if they were making a comparison or a correction, such as 'You might own a blue car but I own a red car.' I think the 'party party' dealie comes in with this.
posted by wackybrit at 8:48 AM on September 3, 2004

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