Dear Word Detective: My office is having a raging argument over the creation of the word “Brainiac.” One side says that the 1958 Superman comic coined the term, with the other side claims it was derived from the first computer, ENIAC. Any thoughts? — Mike McIntyre.
Raging argument over Brainiac, eh? Well, whatever floats your boat. People in an office where I worked many years ago conducted a running feud in which everyone accused everyone else of stealing their chairs, keyboards and desk accessories, day after day. The office eventually resembled a holding pen for lunatics after people began scrawling “Evelyn’s chair” and the like in Wite-Out on everything in an attempt to discourage theft. It didn’t work, of course. In fact, I still, evidently, have Dave’s tape dispenser.
The short answer to your question is that both sides are right, more or less. “Brainiac” was indeed a character introduced in Action Comics as a “supervillain” opponent of Superman in 1958. Evidently in the years since then there have been several modifications made to the “Brainiac” character and his “backstory,” and the page dedicated to “Brainac” at Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) details the evolution of Brainiac in what strikes me as mind-numbing detail (“Pre-Crisis Brainiac in the Post-Crisis Universe”?). Then again I’m probably the only kid in America who threw out his own comic books when he hit sixteen.
Evidently, however, when the folks at DC Comics introduced their new character, there was already a “Brainiac” on the market, a small kit for building rudimentary computers, aimed at home experimenters. A 1964 note from DC editors explains: “Shortly after the first ‘Brainiac’ story appeared in Action Comics in 1956, we learned that a real ‘Brainiac’ existed..in the form of an ingenious ‘Brainiac Computer Kit’ invented in 1955 by Edmund C. Berkeley. In deference to his ‘Brainiac’ which pre-dates ours,..we are changing the characterization of our ‘Brainiac’ so that the master-villain will henceforth possess a computer personality.’” I’m not sure why they cited 1956 as Brainiac’s first appearance; all my other sources say 1958. Perhaps the folks who wrote “Pre-Crisis Brainiac in the Post-Crisis Universe” would care to sort that out.
In any case, the DC folks apparently derived “Brainiac” by blending “brain” with “maniac,” and only later, as noted above, was Brainiac depicted as being computer-like. The name of the Brainiac kit, however, was clearly modeled on ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer), the first truly practical large-scale computer put into operation in 1946 and employed in the design of the hydrogen bomb.
“Brainiac” has also, since the mid-1970s, come into use, often in a derogatory sense, as slang for someone perceived as very intelligent, roughly synonymous with “nerd.”