I came across an interesting false friend recently, when a student referred to a person as genial. Now, this might seem fine to me, but is was clear from the context that a word like brilliant would have been more appropriate. How can we explain this seemingly strange error, confusing two such obviously different words?
Well, they’re obviously different to an English speaker, but not necessarily to an Italian speaker. For you see, the Italian word most-easily translated to the English brilliant (relating to intelligence), is geniale. For example, the novel My Brilliant Friend, by the Italian writer Elena Ferrante, is L’Amica Geniale in Italian.
If you wanted to find a translation for the English genial, the closest Italian word would probably be cordiale.
How then, can we explain how genial in English, and geniale in Italian (and génial in French, which also means brilliant, or fantastic or amazing) look and sound so similar? Well, we have to go all the way back to the start, to our birth.
The Latin word genius originally referred to a sort of guardian angel which accompanies each person from birth, guiding and teaching them morally and spiritually. This then fairly naturally evolved into the modern English word genius, originally meaning one whose spirit expresses itself strongly through their talents or intelligence. This concept of an external spirit binding itself to us over time became the more modern sense of our spirit being an inherent part of ourselves.
The original Latin word genius also spread itself etymologically across many different words, in different languages. As it was associated with birth, it was associated with creation (genesis, generate) and people in a very general (also, general) sense, as in the French gens (people).
And the relationship between genius and birth also led to the word, and others related to it, being associated with marriage, as getting married was in the past of course expected to soon be followed by birth. And this is where we get genial from, the friendly, festive atmosphere of a wedding, which soon evolved to mean friendly or pleasant in a more general sense.
That’s the interesting thing about false friends. Having a knowledge of the other person’s language helps, so you can tell what word they’re getting confused by, and help them translate it into English. But understanding why words with different meanings can look or sound similar is a much trickier proposition, though knowing Latin is likely to be helpful!