Which Word Wednesday: Conceit vs. Concept

By June 8, 2011 language 2 Comments

At our family gathering this past weekend, my brother-in-law and his girlfriend said they had a word quandary for me. We proceeded to have a delightful conversation about word usage and context.

Afterward, I mentioned it would make a great feature . . . and here it is.

This week’s Which Word Wednesday is pulled from a real life conversation my brother-in-law had with someone in which he was describing a game. (I’ve now forgotten the exact wording he used—sorry, Dylan!) The comment in question went something like this: “The director’s conceit was to show a darkened skyline . . .” The question was whether conceit was the appropriate word; it was suggested to him that concept would be a better choice.

I honestly had never heard conceit used in that way, so my first inclination was to choose concept. But I have looked up enough words by now that I know many words have obscure secondary definitions, so I promised to look it up. Here’s what the Oxford American Dictionary says:

conceit :: noun
1 excessive pride in oneself : he was puffed up with conceit. See notes at egotism, pride.
2 a fanciful expression in writing or speech; an elaborate metaphor : the idea of the wind’s singing is a prime romantic conceit.
• an artistic effect or device : the director’s brilliant conceit was to film this tale in black and white.
• a fanciful notion : he is alarmed by the widespread conceit that he spent most of the 1980s drunk.

Well, there it is, used almost exactly in the same sense that my brother-in-law used it! Conceit does mean pride, but it also means “an artistic effect or device.”

That’s all new to me! Mark Davidson, in his Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage, acknowledges this usage in his entry conceit is more than vanity:

The noun conceit, like concept, is from a Latin verb meaning “to conceive.” Hence, conceit originally meant “that which is conceived in the mind; a conception, notion, or idea.”1

What’s my WWW verdict? Word learning never ends. Oh, and word discussions make family gatherings all the sweeter.

What’s your verdict? Have you ever used conceit in this way? Do share in the comments.

Check out previous Which Word Wednesday verdicts here.

1. Mark Davidson, Right, Wrong, and Risky: A Dictionary of Today’s American English Usage (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 166.

  • http://twitter.com/michaeldanner Michael Danner

    I was involved in round one of that discussion. Although when I was involved it was less like a discussion, more like a man trying desperately to defend his word choice. At one point (and in good fun) he was accused of being conceited for using the word “conceit” in that way. He couldn’t win. If he was wrong, he was conceited for trying. If he was right, he was conceited for not using the word “concept”. I feel sorry for families that don’t have word-nerd discussions at their gatherings.

    Thank you for clarifying this, I will try to use conceit in this way going forward. Maybe by saying things like; “The conceit of this parable by Jesus was…”

    Maybe you can help me with another grammar question? When do you put quotes around a word in a sentence? (example: He was conceited for not using the word “concept” anyway.) Quotes or not quotes?

    Love the example—yes, throw that into a sermon and see if you get any perplexed looks. As for the quotes—AP and Chicago Manual of Style both use quotation marks for phrases and titles (direct quotes, dialogue, song titles, article titles). For single words (unfamiliar terms/lingo, foreign phrases), AP allows quotes first use (none needed thereafter) but CMS suggests itals. I prefer itals (as used in conceit and concept in this post). I avoid using quotes as much as possible b/c it can be overused. There’s a whole site about that called The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotes—some very funny submissions! I also speak of overuse in this post. (One blogger friend commented on that post how she has started using three fingers for air quotes to kick it up a notch.) —es

  • http://gendron77.com GENDRON 77

    Alright, so, 9 years later, I stumbled across this post. I’ve been in a few design meetings recently and a fellow designer keeps using “conceit” in the conversation. I TOO had never heard this word used in this manner and each time they say it, I get a bit more flustered. Thank you for this

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