English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Masterminds, evil and otherwise

Q: I was surprised to find “master mind” in Framley Parsonage, an 1860 novel by Anthony Trollope. I had thought of it as a more recent usage. What more can you tell me?

A: The term is even older than that. When “mastermind” showed up in English in the late 1600s, it referred to someone with an outstanding mind. (We’ll use the one-word spelling here, though at first the term was hyphenated or two separate words.)

The earliest written example in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Cleomenes, a 1692 play by John Dryden about the warlike Spartan king of the late 6th and early 5th centuries BC:

“A Soul, not conscious to it self of Ill, / Undaunted Courage, and a Master-mind.”

As far as we can tell, Trollope’s use of the term in Framley Parsonage is the earliest written example of “mastermind” used for someone in charge of an elaborate scheme or undertaking, sometimes a questionable one.

In the novel, Mr. Supplehouse, a Machiavellian journalist among V.I.P.s visiting the Duke of Omnium, “felt that he was the master mind there at Gatherum Castle, and that those there were all puppets in his hand.”

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, defines “mastermind” in this sense as a “person who plans and directs a complex and ingenious enterprise, esp. a criminal operation.”

The earliest citation in the dictionary for that sense is from a later Trollope novel, The Eustace Diamonds (1872): “The police thought that I had been the master-mind among the thieves.”

You can find both senses of “mastermind” today in standard dictionaries. Oxford Dictionaries online, for example, defines it as a “person with an outstanding intellect” as well as one “who plans and directs an ingenious and complex scheme or enterprise.”

The dictionary gives this example for the first sense, “an eminent musical mastermind,” and this example for the second, “the mastermind behind the project.”

And here’s a felonious example in our library from Indiscretions of Archie, a 1921 novel by P. G. Wodehouse:

“The usual bond-robbery had taken place on the previous day, and the police were reported hot on the trail of the Master-Mind who was alleged to be at the back of these financial operations”

If you’d like to read more, we’ve written several other posts about “master” on the blog, including one in 2017 about how “master” became “mister,” and one in 2015 about whether it’s legitimate to use the term “master” in education today given its historical ties to slavery.

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