How are we to grasp the genealogy of the “public intellectual”? When, how, and at whose hands did this term first come into use, framing an ideal of democratic responsibility for those who devote their work life to fostering knowledge and criticism—an image usually raised as a reproach to academic insularity though also sometimes assailed for encouraging an evasion of scholarly rigor? At first blush, the phrase seems redundant: the emergence of “intellectual” simpliciter is usually linked to a particular episode—the Dreyfusards’ defense of the French republic—that already implied a commitment by writers, thinkers, and artists to political or civic action. From that time and place, the term traveled quickly across borders and before long to the United States, occasioning controversies from the start over who represented the “intellectual” as a social type and who did not, what activities or purposes best defined the role, and whether that role deserved respect, derision, or reinvention. To be sure, the social, cultural, and political world of “modern” societies has always featured individuals noted for scholarly, creative, speculative, or critical work that resonates with literate audiences attuned to key issues of the moment—whether such people were known as ministers, philosophes, journalists, poets, men or women of letters, Transcendentalists, or even, in some eighteenth-and nineteenth-century usages, natural philosophers or scientists. Nonetheless, the emergence of the noun “intellectual” (and its plural) from the early twentieth century, and its widening use since the 1920s, spawned a persistent and self-conscious discourse concerning the character, value or virtue of such figures. A skeptic might conclude that the addition of the modifier “public” has perpetuated old, tangled debates about intellectuals as such, without bringing with it much greater clarity. Words nonetheless are signs of historical troubles and social discontents. Excavating the usages of “public intellectual” over time can highlight some of the dilemmas that have confronted writers, critics, citizens, and political actors, past and present.