Which Word Wednesday: Inconceivable vs. Unthinkable

By September 15, 2010 culture, language 119 Comments

Tell me I am not alone in my utter love for The Princess Bride.

One of the many aspects of this film that I so enjoy is the play on language. It’s filled with banter and even a few witty puns (that surprisingly don’t annoy me).

Throughout the movie, the villainous character Vizzini finds his well-laid plans thwarted again and again. To these upsets, his constant reply is, “Inconceivable!” After about the fifth “Inconceivable!” one of his good-hearted hired men, Inigo Montoya (played fabulously by Mandy Patinkin), says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Here’s the clip for your amusement:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D58LpHBnvsI]

And so this presents us with today’s Which Word Wednesday quandary: inconceivable vs. unthinkable. Let’s look to the Oxford American Dictionary for our definitions:

Inconceivable :: adjective
not capable of being imagined or grasped mentally; unbelievable

Unthinkable :: adjective
(of a situation or event) too unlikely or undesirable to be considered a possibility

Now, I must admit: These words are very close in meaning, making it difficult to find a distinct separating line.

However, I think of inconceivable as describing something that cannot be comprehended because it is too abstract (like our deficit) or beyond grasping mentally (like finding the edge of the universe). Unthinkable should be employed in describing a situation producing a negative result that your heart just cannot bear dwelling upon (like the Man in Black scaling the Cliffs of Insanity double-time).

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My WWW verdict? I agree with Inigo Montoya: Vizzini meant unthinkable but used inconceivable. But this small twist creates a fantastic verbal exchange. It is impeccable.

But what do you think, my fellow Princess Bride fans? Do you agree with Inigo Montoya? Chime in with your vote in the poll. And do share your Princess Bride or word related remarks in the post comments.

And although it would be both inconceivable and unthinkable if you’ve never seen The Princess Bride, you simply must watch it if you’ve never gotten the chance. Then come on back and tell me what you think.

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