• conceit •
Pronunciation: kên-seet • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. (Mass noun) Extreme egotism, excessive and vain pride in oneself. 2. (Count noun) A fanciful or outlandish notion or idea. 3. In literature, an unusually creative twist, a bit of unexpected imagery or metaphor.
Notes: Centuries ago today's good word had the same meanings as concept and conception; all three were derived from the verb conceive. However, as meanings changed over the years, English assigned different meanings to these three nouns despite their common origin. In the sense of "egotism", conceit is a mass noun that has no plural. In the sense of "fanciful notion", it can be pluralized, as a novel that relies on its conceits more than its plot.
In Play: Let's focus on the second meaning of today's Good Word since it tends to be overlooked: "Inga Smorgasbord based all her candlelight dinners on the conceit that food was enjoyed more at a table inundated in redolent flowers." In his poem, "The Flea", John Donne uses a flea as a conceit for a metaphorical marriage with the object of his affection when the flea sucks and mingles blood from the both of them. The conceit is deepened when he suggests that killing the flea would now be suicide. This is not an ordinary metaphor but a highly creative, unexpected, and fanciful one.
Word History: Even in Middle English, today's Good Word meant "mind, concept". It was then conceite, an Anglo-Norman reduction of Late Latin conceptus, the past participle of concipere "to grasp, conceive". This verb was made up of the intensive prefix com- + capere "to take", the source of English words like capture, captive, and captivate. The root of capere came from Proto-Indo-European kap- "grab, grasp", which reached Old Germanic as habai- "get, have" and continued to German as haben and to English as have, both with the same meanings.