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

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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.

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