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shameless pleading

Ingénue / Ingenious

Who, me?

Dear Word Detective: What is the connection between ingénue (which my spell checker insists is not a word, foolish thing) and ingenuity? It’s hard to imagine they’re not related, but on the surface they seem almost opposites. — Patrick Bowman.

I don’t know what spell checker you’re using but my LibreOffice rightly points out that all “ingénue” needs to pass muster is that accent over the first “e.” LibreOffice is the free open source word processing suite I use and highly recommend, although I have more or less given up trying to pry people away from Microsoft Word. Everybody seems to hate Word, but they’re all afraid to try alternatives, and when I suggest they take it for a spin they recoil as if I’ve offered them a bite of squid-flavored ice cream.

You’ve asked a question to which the answer is weirdly complicated, so we’ll just begin with “ingénue,” which is defined as “an innocent or naive young woman” (or, by extension, the sort of young actress who typically plays such characters in movies or plays). The first appearance of “ingénue” found so far in English literature came in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair in 1848 (“When attacked sometimes, Becky had a knack of adopting a demure ingénue air, under which she was most dangerous”). Though you can’t tell from that quote, Thackeray italicized the word because he was borrowing it from French, where it is a feminine form of the adjective “ingénu,” meaning “naive, innocent” or (its English equivalent) “ingenuous.”

“Ingenuous” has an interesting history in English. It first appeared in the early 17th century meaning “free-born” or “of free and honorable birth,” derived from the Latin “ingenuus” (“in” plus “gen,” from “gignere,” to beget). In Latin, “ingenuus” carried not only the meaning of “native, free-born,” but also “noble,” “frank” and “honest,” assumed to be qualities of a native Roman. In English, “ingenuous” carried those same senses at first, adding “generous,” “high-minded” and “honest.” By the late 17th century, “ingenuous” was also being used in the specific sense, now common, of “innocently open or frank” as an ingénue would be (“These were fine notions to have got into the head of an ingenuous country maiden,” 1877). This is a sense sadly more often encountered in its antonym “disingenuous,” meaning “insincere” or (in the words of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)), “morally fraudulent” (“It is a disingenuous thing to ask for advice, when you mean assistance,” 1875).

“Ingenuous” is often confused with “ingenious” because they differ by only one letter, but the connection between the words is deeper than form. English developed “ingenious” from the French “ingénieux” in the late 15th century. The French word was adapted from the Latin “ingeniosus,” which meant “clever, intellectual, talented,” and was based on “ingenium,” which meant “innate abilities” and came from the same roots that produced “ingenuous.” So the words are very close cousins.

In English, “ingenious,” applied to a person, originally simply meant “intelligent, clever,” and describing a thing meant “showing cleverness or talent.” By the late 16th century, both these uses had shifted a bit, and “ingenious” began to be used in its modern senses of “clever at constructing or developing things” (“The division of labour leads to invention, because it enables ingenious men to make invention their profession,” 1878) and, of things, “cleverly and skillfully designed” (“The most ingenious and beautiful contrivances for deep-sea soundings were resorted to,” 1860).

Lastly, if you find yourself confusing “ingenious” with “ingenuous,” you have good company. There’s a long history of famous writers doing just that, and even Shakespeare used “ingenuous” to mean “talented” when he meant “ingenious” (in Love’s Labor Lost) and vice-versa (“ingenious” for “ingenuous,” well-born, in The Taming of the Shrew).

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