engi– or inge –neer

Since I arrived in Australia in 1983, the spelling of engineer and its usage has always bothered me.  Being an Ingenieur, I like to be accurate, therefore, let’s get one thing straight.

A Word about the Word

When we hear the word engineer, in English, almost everyone thinks of engines. People, who work with engines are call engineers. The engineering officer is the one who deals with engines and other greasy machinery. Then, there is this other lot.  Those, who came out of university. You would not want to be mixed up with them, this snobbish lot, who don’t want to get their hands dirty.  They are called engineers, too, even they couldn’t hold a spanner.

In German, the word Ingenieur has nothing to do with engines. Due to its spelling and notorious mispronunciation by English speakers, it sounds a bit like engineer, but, etymologically, it is not derived from engine, which in German is MotorIngenieur stems from the word ingenious.

The etymology of engineer is as follows: “In Middle English, a designer and constructor of fortifications and weapons was called: ingineer.”  …which sounds more like it!  At the same time, the French called this fellow: engigneor, derived from medieval Latin ingeniator.

You can see the mixing up of the vowels; one could blame the French for it.  Later, the French corrected the error in their language, but this was to no avail for the stubborn English, who never had a reformation of their language, ever.

An Overview

for the word engineer across a  few central languages

pronunciation etymology . . . . Words for engine
English engineer injineer engine motor,  machine, engine
Mandarin 工程 gōngchéngshī 工程 project       master 马达   机    发动机
German Ingenieur injeniör ingeniös Motor, Maschine
French ingénieur æjiniör ingénieus moteur, machine
Italian ingegnere injeniere ingegnoso motore, macchina
Spanish ingeniero injeniero motor, maquina
Latin ingeniarius injeniarius in + gignere ‎ motor
Greek μηχανικός michanikós ingenious μοτέρ [motéhr]
Old Greek μηχανή mēkhanḗ ingenious, resourceful
Arabic مهندس muhandiz relating to geometry [maharrak]    محرك

It appears the word engine exists only in English.

The Greek word sounds like mechanic and means ingenious, originating from ingeniare where it means: to contrive, devise.  In Latin, ingeniarius is derived from in + gignere or genere means to beget, produce.

 … and many other languages around the world:

If words are not written in the Latin alphabet, I replaced them by their pronunciation in square brackets.  The words highlighted in blue are definitely a derivative of ingenious.

Asturian/ Spain inxenieru  Bulgarian [inženér] Czech inženýr
Danish ingeniør  Dutch ingenieur Esperanto inĝeniero
Estonian insener Finnish insinööri Hindi [abhiyantā]
Irish innealtóir Japanese [Gijutsusha], [gishi], [enjinia] Jèrriais/ Jersey island înginnieux
Ladino/ Jewish-Spanish injeniero Mandarin [gōngchéngshī]  [jìshī] Min Nan/ Chinese dialect [ki-su]
Marathi/ Western India [imjiniyara] Norwegian ingeniør Persian [mohandes] [enjenier]
Polish inżynier Portuguese engenheiro Roman inženjer
Romanian inginer Russian [inženér] Scots ingeneer
Gaelic einnseanair Slovak inžinier Sorbian/ East-Germany inženjer
Swedish ingenjör Tagalog/ Philippines inhinyero

I like the Scots spelling because, as it is supposed to, it is derived from ingenious. For most, it would be easier to pronounce than Ingenieur, even it would be more correct.  Having lived in Australia for over 30 years, I am still in the process of adopting the un-German attitude: “Close enough is good enough.”


Distilling the above table, let’s construct the word:

1 mostly, it starts with an I closely followed by an N IN***
2 followed by J or G, both pronounced ‘J’, ING***
3 Mostly, this is followed by an E INGE***
4 All have the next N INGEN***
5 then a Y or I but both pronounced ‘I’ INGENI***
6 proper spelling of the word is INGENIEER

This demonstrates, the correct spelling of the start of the word is INGENI***. Secondly, the table indicates, without the slightest doubt: the word does not originate from engine.

In Conclusion

We all are now in total agreement, the proper international spelling of the word is ingenieer, however, for convenience sake, and having the English population in mind, I propose to drop the ‘i‘ … and adhere to the Scots spelling:


However, having said all the above and arrived at a very amicable solution, not before too long, the above debate will be superseded.  Then ingeneer will be called gōngchéngshī and spelt 工程师  … in simplified Mandarin … you may as well get used to it.


Amadeus W.

23 March 2015

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