The 2010 MacArthur “genius” fellowships were announced today, meaning 23 individuals just received $500,000 in recognition of their “making our world a better place.” The recipients, artists, scientists, and others, can do whatever they want with the cash. Every year when these fabulous funds are given out, people tend to ask: “What makes them so special,” and “Don’t I deserve a genius grant?”
Perhaps a psychologist is better qualified to answer those questions, but we’re happy to see if our dictionary gnomes can provide some insight regarding the concept of “genius.” One of the most popular online definitions of genius would seem to be I.Q. scores. Prepare to be disappointed.
It’s true that an intelligence quotient of 140 or higher is considered by some experts to be “genius” level, but it is our duty as a Web site devoted to meaning to tell you that this number on its own is useless. I.Q. is a complex and controversial measure that is arguably useful in conjunction with other tests conducted by professionals. An online I.Q. test will only eat up time you could be spending reading Toni Morrison or Lewis Carroll, or doing anything else that actually stimulates your brain.
Genius goes back to Latin, where the meaning varies from our modern sense: a “guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth.” Wouldn’t it be nice to have a smart person watching out for us all the time? The sense of “person of natural intelligence or talent” comes from the 1640s. The root of “genius” is gignere, “to produce,” which perhaps offers the insight we seek. A genius is best defined by what they create, not an abstract quotient residing in the brain.