The brainchild behind

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Mon May 6 19:46:35 UTC 2013

On Mon, May 6, 2013 at 2:36 PM, Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Laurence Horn <laurence.horn at YALE.EDU>
> Subject:      Re: The brainchild behind
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> On May 6, 2013, at 2:27 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole wrote:
>>> On May 6, 2013, at 10:20 AM, Ben Zimmer wrote:
>>>> On Mon, May 6, 2013 at 9:23 AM, Neal Whitman wrote:
>>>>> On NPR this morning, a story about the dismal run of a Spice Girls in London said
>>>>> that the show's creator was also "the brainchild behind" the musical Mamma Mia.
>>>>> A Google search for "the brainchild behind" brings up a number of hits I can't
>>>>> determine on my phone screen, but I notice that the first one is from Brian's Usage
>>>>> Errors, explaining that some people misuse "brainchild" in this way. In any case, it
>>>>> was new to me.
>>>>> Checking with Google Ngrams, I see that "brainchild behind" is on the rise, but still
>>>>> very rare compared to "brainchild of". I had to magnify the results 50x before
>>>>> it appeared as something other than a flat line:*50&year_start=1900&year_end=2008&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=
>>>> And see the discussion of "brainchild" we had in Jan. '08:
>>> My only emendation to that discussion is that I'd nominate "brains (behind)"
>>> as the causal link rather than "brain" or "mastermind" (even though the
>>> semantics would be basically the same).  Of course you can also have
>>> "the brains of the operation", but "the brains behind the operation" is
>>> not uncommon either.
>> It appears that the modifier "child" is being ignored. Why?
>> Hypothesis: "brainchild" is re-interpreted as "brainy child". A
>> semantic nexus for "prodigy" already exists for many people. One
>> definition for prodigy is: A person, especially. a young one, endowed
>> with exceptional abilities. The term "brainy child" intersects with
>> this nexus, and so the user of the term "brainchild" decides it can be
>> applied to adults and children.
> I'm not sure I can get it to work that way.  The "brainchild behind" an
> operation, a play, etc. doesn't have anything obvious to do with prodigies,
> child or otherwise.  It seems to me more likely that we have a blend
> of "X is the (metaphorical) brainchild of Y" and "Y is the brains behind
> X".  If there's a child around, it's the operation, play, etc., that emerges
> fully-formed Athena-style from the brains of Y, not Y him/herself.

Consider the following semantic grouping (based on a thesaurus listing):

child genius, whiz kid, mastermind, wonder child, wunderkind, wizard,
genius, brain, prodigy, talent, wonder

The conventional definition of "brainchild" would not place the word
in this semantic category. Yet, it seems possible that some people
would place "brainchild" in this grouping. Once the word is placed in
this group the speaker might find it acceptable to use it as a synonym
for other members of the set such as "mastermind" and "brain".

Perhaps the blend explanation suggested by LH is the best one.

This alternative or supplementary semantics oriented explanation might
help to explain why the usage is facilitated or why it is not blocked.


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