English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Suppose someone comes up with a great original idea.

Some time later, someone else comes up with exactly the same idea without knowing that idea been conceived already and even without being influenced in any way by the other person's thought.

In other words, both of them make the discovery totally independently and not at the same time. For example, Leibniz and Newton invented Calculus this way; Cook and Levin established NP-Complete theory this way.

The idea from the very first inventor is no doubt considered original. But what about the same idea independently conceived by others later in time? I have no problem calling the latter original, although it seems less original than the very original one. Would there be a word or phrase that can readily convey the state of being "less" original?

share|improve this question
Just to be clear, do you want a word for independent invention that chronologically followed the other inventor's discovery, as opposed to simply a word for independent invention, per jsbangs's answer? – JeffSahol Dec 22 '11 at 15:15
@JeffSahol JSBangs's answer is good, but independent more or less lacks an emphasis on ORIGINALITY. The following inventions are absolutely original to the inventors themselves (they are just not aware of the existence of the invention), however, to the rest of the world they are not since the world have been aware of the existence of the invention before that and the word original refers to the very first appearance of something. – Terry Li Dec 22 '11 at 15:26
I don't think there's a single word to cover that idea. You might describe the discovery as unknowingly redundant. – onomatomaniak Dec 22 '11 at 16:20
OK, Terry, but there are two meanings of the word "original" at work here: "Preceding all others in time", and "Not derived from something else". An independent invention is original in the second sense, but not in the first. My question was, are you looking for a single word that unambiguously means original in both senses (precedence in time, AND not derived)? Or vice versa, something that is does NOT have precedence in time, though not derived from the preceding discovery)? That seems to be the question, but that does not make it "less" original, just original in fewer senses of the word. – JeffSahol Dec 22 '11 at 16:20
@JeffSahol The single-word-requests tag was added by JSBangs. I only want to know if it's appropriate to refer to later independent inventions as original. If not, what would work better? Not necessarily a single word, any expression will do. – Terry Li Dec 22 '11 at 16:42
up vote 4 down vote accepted

I would use independent to discover multiple discoveries which do not derive from each other.

Both Newton and Leibniz independently developed the fundamental principles of calculus.

The same word can be used to describe multiple inventions, linguistic innovations, etc.

share|improve this answer
I agree that in any context where chronological sequence and cross-influence might be relevant, original should only be used of the first instance, and only then if it's beyond dispute. In all other contexts, some variant of independent should be used - particularly if there's no significant cross-influence involved. Anything else is just pointlessly confusing/potentially contentious. – FumbleFingers Dec 22 '11 at 18:35

There are several senses available. Original has to do with origins, and can refer to either

  1. the personal origin of something (an idea, in this case), i.e, whether it was copied or not

    • originating with him
    • original to him
    • and triplets of composition virtues like "originality, clarity, and order"
  2. or, one can employ a THOUGHT is ALIVE metaphor theme to treat an idea as having a single, unique origin (like a living being), and therefore referring to its assumed temporal origin

    • Radioactivity was originally discovered by Becquerel.

(Note that there was in fact radioactivity before Becquerel discovered it, so this is not the origin of radioactivity, but rather the -- undisputed, in this case -- origin of our current state of knowledge about radioactivity.)

With regard to Newton/Leibnitz, each invented one calculus: Newton differential and Leibnitz integral. Each was aware of the inverse variety but put them to different uses for their own purposes. Both share the credit, and if there is any temporal difference it's measured in less than a decade, so at this distance I'd say they both are original, since there's no question of copying.

share|improve this answer

"When the time is ripe for certain things, they appear at different places in the manner of violets coming to light in early spring."

— Farkas Bolyai, to his son Janos, urging him to claim the invention of non-Euclidean geometry without delay.

In my answer to Synonym for 'arrive independently' at same solution, I cited the concept of multiple discovery -- "the hypothesis that most scientific discoveries and inventions are made independently and more or less simultaneously by multiple scientists and inventors."

The Wikipedia article goes on to say:

Robert K. Merton defined such "multiples" as instances in which similar discoveries are made by scientists working independently of each other. "Sometimes the discoveries are simultaneous or almost so; sometimes a scientist will make a new discovery which, unknown to him, somebody else has made years before."

When an new discovery can take place years after the same discovery made by someone else, and still be considered part of the same "multiple," it makes about as much sense to restrict "original" to a single independent discovery in a multiple as it does to anoint a single "original" violet in Bolyai's quote. They are all original.

share|improve this answer
+1 I enjoyed the quote very much. – Terry Li Dec 23 '11 at 0:23

“Re-original”? (Dictionaries are not prescriptive.)

“The patent for the chemist’s re-original discovery was pending, but likely.”

People might get that. The flexibility and utility of English is profound.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.