No. 3056: THE TRUTH ABOUT INGENUITY

by Richard Armstrong

Click here for audio of Episode 3056

Today, the truth about ingenuity. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

For thousands of episodes, we’ve talked about ingenuity on this program. Well, it’s time we come clean about it: ingenuity isn’t really what we say it is.

You see, it all starts with confusion over two adjectives: ingenious and ingenuous. To be ingenious means to be clever, inventive and creative. But to be ingenuous means to be innocent and unsuspecting, like the ingénue in a comedy — a kind of naïve young woman. The two words don’t exactly mean opposite things; but they are very different in meaning. An ingenious person is not usually considered ingenuous; in fact, it might be smarter to play at being disingenuous — that is, pretending to be innocent and naïve, when you’re really not. Now that’s ingenuity!

So here’s the problem: in appearance, ingenuity is the noun formed from ingenuous, not from ingenious. The noun of ingenious is actually ingeniousness. So how is it that ingenuity came to mean ingeniousness? The answer is simple: confusion.

pickford
Mary Pickford, the great American ingénue of the Silent Film Era. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Let’s go back to the beginning. Ingenuity comes from the Latin ingenuitas, an important concept in Roman law. It describes the condition of a person who was born free. Isn’t everyone, you might ask. Well, the Romans distinguished between persons born free, the ingenui, and those who were born slaves but were later freed: libertini. So ingenuity meant the status of a proper freeborn person; someone free of the stigma of a slave’s birth.

Ingenuous came to mean in English, “noble, generous.” Then ingenuous began to characterize the speech of a gentleman, as in “honorably straightforward, frank.” By the 17th century it meant innocently frank — as if you can’t help but tell the truth. That sense of involuntary honesty is quite the opposite of ingenuity in our current sense of cleverness and invention.

But the confusion didn’t happen out of total ignorance. Ingenuous and ingenious are linked around a central Latin concept: that of something innate, inborn. The two words derive from the verb ingignere, to make something grow, or to implant something. A related noun ingenium can be hard to translate, but it refers to one’s inborn character or talent. Just as being a free person was a fact of your parentage and birth, so too your innate cleverness was something you couldn’t acquire by other means. You were born that way.

Well, there’s been a shift in how we think about things. To us, all people are born free — that’s one basic idea we still cling to in America. But we’re not all born ingenious. And perhaps it would be ingenuous to think that we could be. Nowadays, genius generates ingenuity — or is it ingeniousness? Anyway, you know what I mean.

I’m Richard Armstrong at the University of Houston, where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

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For more on Roman ingenuitas, click here.

This episode was first aired on March 22, 2016