Anthony Poulton-Smith explores the origins of everyday engineering terms
Look up ‘engine’ in the dictionary and it is defined as ‘a device that converts energy into mechanical power’. Thus there were no engines before the eighteenth century and the birth of industry.
Yet there are records of by 1300 and used to refer to ‘a mechanical device’ and particularly one used for warfare.
We also find the term used at least a century earlier. These earlier references use these in a variety of senses, including ‘skill’, ‘craft’, ‘innate ability’, and also ‘deceitfulness’ or ‘trickery’. The earlier references are the original usages, all derived from Old French engin meaning ‘skill, wit, cleverness’ in some instances and yet more often as ‘trick, deceit, stratagem’.
Further back we find Late Latin ingenium ‘war machine’ and earlier still ‘inborn qualities, talent’. It is the earlier use of ingenium which most interests us as this has also resulted in the word ‘ingenuity’. When we hear both words the link is clearer than seeing it in writing. And I know of no engineer who will not be delighted to learn his job title is, at least etymologically speaking, akin to that of a genius.