The Wikipedia entry on the Dreyfus Affair (1894-1906) contains a sentence that says It was during The Affair that the term "intellectual" was coined in France. And a footnote links it to a "Michel Winock" and a publication entitled The Age of Intellectuals.

It seems to fit with a view among some historians, notably Eric Hobsbawm, who have drawn attention to the way society was reinvented following the revolutions in Europe of 1789 and 1848, and their bringing in to play all kinds of new words such as "revolution", "capitalism", "socialism", "aristocracy" etc

While the OED confirms that intellectual is of French origin, it has evidence of its use going back to c1265. And it would seem a step too far for any historian to claim that it was first coined as a way of describing the Dreyfusards in the 1890s.

I do not know anything about Michel Winock, and have been unable to find this publication of his.

But does anyone know of any reason to suppose that this Wikipedia entry is anything other than a load of nonsense?


3 Answers 3


In a book called Intellectuals and Society, A Study of Teachers in India by Kameshwar Choudhary (2004), there is a more thorough research about the origins of the term:

The term ‘intellectual’... came to the English language partly through French in which it is Intellectuel, the word used for the first time in French in 1265 as a noun signifying one who is concerned with knowledge or understanding.

According to The Oxford English Dictionary, the term intellectual signifies

a person possessing or supposed to possess superior powers of intellect.

It cites a number of examples of former use of the term. In 1652, for instance, Benlowes talked of

First race of Intellectuals.

In 1813, Byron said,

Canning is to be here, Frere and Sharpe, — perhaps Gifford... I wish I may be well enough to listen to these intellectuals.

In 1884, A.A. Watts referred to

The silent person who astonished Coleridge at a dinner of intellectuals.

On 30 November 1898 the Daily News reported,

Proceeding to refer to the so-called intellectuals of Constantinople, who were engaged in discussion while the Turks were taking possession of the city.

On 19 December 1903, the Saturday Review stated,

We are compelled to rank higher the mind of the average young man of fashion than the mind of the average “intellectual” _ at those literary tea-parties.

On 12 August 1960, the Times Literary Supplement mentioned,

The English have a great respect for brute facts; and the intellectual in politics often looks to them like a man busily engaged in brushing unpleasant facts under the carpet.

The same author then goes on to quote Raymond Williams, the Welsh writer:

Raymond Williams holds that the word ‘intellectual’ has been an ordinary objective, from the fourteenth century, for ‘intelligence’ in its most general sense. However, it became a noun to signify the faculties or processes of ‘intelligence’. According to him, the use of the word ‘intellectual’ as a noun to refer to a particular kind of person or a person doing a particular kind of work dates effectively from the first third of the nineteenth century though it had some isolated earlier instances. Moreover, he notes the application of its plural ‘intellectuals’ from the first third of the nineteenth century to indicate ‘a category of persons,’ often unfavourably.

In his book, Marxism, Intellectuals and Politics (2006), D. Bates also quotes Raymond Williams:

In Byron’s remark, as Raymond Williams has noted, we see a view of the intellectual which implies ‘coldness, abstraction and, significantly, ineffectiveness’ (Williams 1976:141). That is, this early definition of the intellectual contains within it a normative critique of intellectuals as a social group. Yet the point at which most studies begin is with the Dreyfus affair of 1898. In the Dreyfus affair, figures such as Proust and Zola aimed to speak out against the unjust treatment of Captain Alfred Dreyfus (see Arendt 1951; Feuer 1976; Said 1993; Jennings and Kemp-Welch 1997).

So Wikipedia's article does speak the truth, but probably could have provided more details and background for the evolution of the word.


The OED’s earliest attestation of intellectual as a noun meaning an intellectual being is at 1652. It also notes that the sense evolved in the late 19th century:

From the late 19th cent. often with mildly disparaging connotations of elitism and probably influenced by the use at that time of French intellectuel to denote any of the culturally minded supporters of Alfred Dreyfus (see DREYFUSARD n.).
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

So while the Wikipedia sentence is not terribly precise (and what’s with the commas around intellectual?), neither is it terribly wrong.

  • The inverted commas around "intellectual" are there for exactly the same reason that you italicised the word in your answer. It is the normal grammatical protocol for words that are the subject of discussion, and their normal meaning does not form part of the syntax.
    – WS2
    Feb 19 at 22:41
  • @WS2: That’s not what’s happening in the article; the word is not the subject of discussion. Feb 19 at 22:45
  • My own view is that the Wikipedia sentence is "terribly wrong", saying as it does that the word was "coined" during the Dreyfus Affair. It would have been more correct to sat that it introduced a new sense to the term.
    – WS2
    Feb 19 at 22:45
  • But it should have had inverted commas, for the reason I explained. For example: The word "word" is of Germanic origin. In the same way: The term "intellectual" was coined long before the 19th century
    – WS2
    Feb 19 at 22:51
  • 1
    @WS2: I wasn't complaining about your use of the commas — after all, you were just quoting the article, which uses them. I was just trying to point out that the article was a little sloppy with — words and punctuation. Feb 20 at 0:04

In comments, @Gio answered:

It was not about the term that was coined at that time but on the evolution of its meaning: “At a time when the meaning of the word intellectuel was still being formed, cartoon images circulated after “J’accuse…!” was published potentially exemplified the idea of Émile Zola as an intellectual in the mind of the French public more so than “J’accuse…!” itself.1

Accordingly Etymonline: intellectual (noun) 1590s, "mind, intellect, intellectual powers," from intellectual (adj.). The meaning "an intellectual person" is attested from 1650s but was hardly used in that sense in 19c. and the modern use in this sense seems to be a re-coinage from c. 1906. 2

@Fumblefingers contributed: What @Gio said. From the full OED - Middle French intellectuel (French intellectuel) of or belonging to the intellect or understanding (c1265 in Old French)

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