Spend enough time reading about genies and you’ll see handfuls of different spellings: djinn, djinni, jinni, djinny, jinnie, jinnee, even the occasional jinx or ginnaya or gin. It can be pretty confusing. The good news is things are simpler than you think: there really isn’t much of a difference between genies, jinn, and jinn.
Genie, Génie, Genius
The English word genie is directly derived from the Latin genius, which has a few different meanings. One is close to our modern definition of someone with high intelligence or who has an inborn talent at something (computer genius). Another refers to a personal protective spirit, kind of a fairy godmother but without the glass slippers. This meaning made its way to French as génie.
Early English assimilated both the Latin genius and the French génie but kept the definitions separate. Now we have two similar words with a common origin but with two entirely different meanings. Calling someone a genius today doesn’t mean they’re some kind of spirit entity. A few hundred years ago, though, it totally did.
The Arabian Nights stories were the first encounter Europeans had with Arabic legends. When 17th century translators spotted the Arabic word جن (jann), which refers to a specific type of supernatural creature, they realized it sounded a lot like génie. The meaning was a bit different but it was a close enough fit, and so the official translation linked the two words forever.
The trouble with writing a foreign language with a foreign alphabet into a Roman script is that the sounds don’t always line up. Have you ever seen Beijing referred to as Peking? Both are the same place, they’re just different representations of how a western ear hears Chinese sounds. A similar transformation happened to genie/jinn/djinn. When European authors heard or read the Arabic جن they translated the sounds in different ways, sometimes adding vowels or consonants, sometimes removing them. That’s the main reason a single Arabic word ended up looking like half a dozen European words.
Genie: Before & After
There’s still scholarly debate about the true origins of the word jinn. We know the English genie came from French and the French génie came from Latin, but before that things are a little muddled. Some insist genie came from the Aramaic word ginnaya, a type of guardian deity, or the Persian word jaini which referred to a wicked female spirit.
So, djinn, jinn, genie, etc. What’s the verdict? The short answer is all of these words usually refer to the same thing. Remember, though, that the idea of genies popping out of lamps is a modern point of view. A real genie/jinn is much more nuanced and interesting. Check out the origin of the genie in the lamp for more information.