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What is a Brainiac?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A brainiac is someone who exhibits a high level of intelligence. This slang term is also used to refer to someone who is particularly interested in science, mathematics, and other intellectual pursuits at a young age, regardless of intelligence level. These people tend to end up in demanding careers that allow them to use their skills and education, and many companies actively recruit them in the interest of developing better products and services.

The origins of this word as a slang term for a very smart person can be traced to a DC Comics villain of the same name who first appeared in 1958. His name is clearly a portmanteau of “brain” and “maniac,” and he used his impressive intellectual abilities for evil, outsmarting heroes like Superman with crafty and elaborate schemes. As a curious side note, many supervillains seem to be extremely intelligent, and intelligent villains are often depicted as elitists who grow frustrated with people of more ordinary intelligence, although real-life brainiacs are, of course, not necessarily villainous or elitist.

This term is usually used with affection, as in “she's such a brainiac,” and it doesn't have the negative connotations sometimes linked with words like “geek” or “nerd,” which are also sometimes used to describe very intelligent people. People may also hear a very smart person referred to as a whiz kid, genius, or Einstein, referencing her or his considerable intelligence.

Brainiacs come in a wide range of varieties. Some are extremely good at mathematics and analytical pursuits, for example, with excellent problem-solving skills and innovative ways of looking at situations. Others may be extremely skilled in the sciences, or they may have an encyclopedic memory about historical events. This term is usually not used to refer to people with unusual talents, such as preternatural skill at the violin, even though such talents often require considerable mental abilities.

Intelligence is a contentious issue among people who study human development. Some people believe that people are born with high intelligence, rather than made, and that only certain people have the potential to become extremely intelligent individuals. Others believe that, given the right environment, anyone can achieve significant intellectual advances, regardless of genetics. The nature vs nurture debate is unlikely to end any time soon, although a number of brainiacs have put their minds to the problem.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon967496 — On Aug 27, 2014

Yeah, I have never heard of "brainiac" being used affectionately. In fact, as a child of the 80s and 90s, any time I heard the term used, it was meant as an insult. It meant either someone who was too smart for their own good or someone who was dorky and socially maladjusted because of their great but largely useless intelligence.

Maybe in today's nerd culture, some people under 25 think of it as endearing, but they're only looking at a tiny portion of the term's existence and ignoring the rest.

By SarahSon — On Nov 15, 2012

@golf07 -- Your comments remind me of what I remember reading Bill Gates said once. He said something about not making fun of the nerds because some day you will probably work for one. Many brainiacs go on to really make a difference in the world. I happen to believe that most of them are just born with this intellect. The average person can study and learn a lot, but I think most brainiacs don't have to try that hard, and it is something that just comes to them naturally.

By golf07 — On Nov 14, 2012

@andee -- That sounds typical of many people who are considered brainiacs. Many of them have a hard time fitting in socially because they have such a high intellect. There are many times I wished I was smarter than I am, but don't think I would want to be a brainiac.

I always got good grades in school but really had to work at them. This was balanced out with a lot of friends and an active social life. I'm not saying that a brainiac doesn't have a social life, but I have known many brainiacs who struggle socially.

By andee — On Nov 13, 2012

When I think of a brainiac one certain boy comes to mind. At a very young age you could tell he was much smarter than most kids. He was reading high school text books in elementary school. The sad part about this is he felt like he never fit in.

Most kids made fun of him and he didn't have any friends he could relate to. During his elementary years he went to a small rural school and this only made it worse. When he was older they moved and he went to a larger high school and it wasn't quite as bad.

I don't know what he ever ended up doing. I always imagined he would be a chemist or eventually find a cure for cancer or something. He was the type of person who had the brains and intellect to do it.

By indemnifyme — On Sep 05, 2012

@healthy4life - I think people are definitely born with a certain level of intelligence. While I do think that attending a private school for advanced students probably helped you hone your abilities, you were probably smart to begin with. How else would you have gotten into a school for "advanced" students?

By sunnySkys — On Sep 04, 2012

@ceilingcat - It is always interesting to hear how things make their way into popular use. Most people know exactly what a brainiac is, but I don't think I know anyone who knows that Brainiac was the name of a villain in a comic.

Anyway, I agree that calling someone smart a brainiac is usually not meant as an insult. I would consider if a compliment if someone called me a brainiac!

By ceilingcat — On Sep 03, 2012

I think it's interesting that the term braniac originally came from a comic! I always kind of wondered how the term originated. I thought it was a combination of brain and maniac, but I thought it referred to how sometimes really intelligent people get really fixated on a certain subject. Like a maniac, but not like a villain.

By wavy58 — On Aug 20, 2012

Getting labeled “geek” or “nerd” is no fun at all. Getting labeled “brainiac” is not quite as condescending, though some kids who called me that intended for it to be.

I would hear things like, “Ask her to tutor you. She's the brainiac.” That was a sort of compliment.

However, I would also hear, “I doubt she is going to the party. She's such a brainiac that she would probably rather stay home and study for the exam.”

So, while I wasn't viewed as geeky or nerdy, I was viewed as someone who would choose studying over having fun. I got the reputation of being somewhat square.

By healthy4life — On Aug 19, 2012

@Oceana – Some people might be born with more natural intelligence than others, but I do think that environment can have an impact on intelligence. When I was a kid, I was just like any other girl, playing with dolls and paint. However, I started attending a school for advanced students, and I quickly grew to become a brainiac.

My parents had to pay to get me into the school, and I think that they did this so that I would receive a better education and realize my full potential. If I had gone to public school like most kids, I wouldn't have been challenged and exposed to all that in-depth information, and I probably wouldn't have been very interested in my studies at all.

By seag47 — On Aug 19, 2012

I have noticed that a lot of brainiacs love Superman and other superheroes. They seem to have a weird obsession with comics.

I find this strange, since the concept of superheroes is so unscientific and unrealistic. You would think that someone with lots of intelligence would look at such things as foolish and childish.

Usually, I see this in male brainiacs. I don't think I have ever met a female brainiac who collected comic books.

By Oceana — On Aug 18, 2012
I happen to believe that brainiacs are born that way. It became apparent that my brother was a brainiac at 5 years old, and my parents did not fill his head full of science and math to get him that way.

He is one of the rare individuals who have always been smart. I even remember him building an awesome castle out of blocks when he was four that I couldn't have dreamed up at age twelve!

He just had a natural understanding of mechanics and science. It's like a part of his brain got activated at birth that remains dormant in most people.

By anon91368 — On Jun 21, 2010

My comment is actually in reference to an ongoing question. Can it be possible that alvin m. Greene who won the south carolina democratic primary election in june 2010, could be a genius savant? It appears that he has limitations with his articulation, but his mental acuity is somewhat sharp. Has anyone investigated this?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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