In a Word: A Genuine Mystery

We may never know which of these two histories is truly genuine.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today. 

 When you ask if something is genuine, what you’re asking for is verification of the thing’s provenance — where it came from, who made it, whether it is untouched or contaminated. We might ask the same question of the word genuine itself. A search for the word’s provenance takes us in two directions; the first begins with a joint.  

Genu is the Latin word for “knee that ultimately gave us genuflection, literally bending the knee to show obeisance. You might think then that genuine — following the pattern of ursine, porcine, aquiline and the like — would mean “of or pertaining to the knee.” But no; that medical term is genual. 

But what does genuine have to do with the knee? One common etymological story references an ancient custom in which a man would openly acknowledge a child as his offspring by placing it on his knee. Doing so was an indication of the child “being produced or proceeding from its reputed source” — the meaning applied to genuine in English by the 1660s. 

It’s a nice, tidy story about how the word came into being. Unfortunately, the simpler and more satisfying a story is, etymologically speaking, the more likely it is to be false. (Take, for example, any etymology that claims a word, such as posh or tip, was once a 19th-century acronym.) Genuine might have nothing at all to do with a leg joint. 

It’s more likely that genuine traces back to the Latin verb gignere “to beget or produce.” The parenthood link is still there, then, but takes a different course. From gignere the adjective genuinus “natural, innate” (i.e., inborn rather than learned) is derived — and also gives us, centuries of linguistic evolution later, the words gene, genus, and genius, among others.  

Genuine entered the English language some time in the late 1500s, approximately meaning “natural, not acquired,” and from there branched into the subtle shades of genuineness that we know today, from genuine Champagne to a genuine autograph to genuine feelings. 

We may never know which of these two histories of genuine is genuine. 

Featured image: Shutterstock

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