X v Y: Fanciful conceit, or simple concept?

Continuing Glosso’s series of “X v Y”, let’s take a look at conceit and concept.

As Aesop said: “The smaller the mind, the greater the conceit.” In this case, he was talking about the more widely used and understood meaning of conceit: an inflated sense of oneself or one’s self worth or importance.

In its second sense, applied in the worlds of literature and drama and other works of fiction, conceit — not a million miles away from its more prosaic cousin, concept — describes an often fanciful or outlandish use of metaphor, assumption or hypothesis for poetic or dramatic effect and license. It describes the kernel of a story or plot, often requiring a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience or reader, that drives and characterizes the book, play, film or opera in question. Talking about the movie Slumdog Millionaire, about a teenager growing up in the slums of Mumbai who becomes a contestant on the Indian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire (and is then arrested for cheating on the show), the renowned novelist Salman Rushdie wrote in The Guardian that the central premise of the film “beggars belief”… “This is a patently ridiculous conceit, the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name.” Whether or not Rushdie was convinced by this particular conceit, it must have worked for many, because the film went on to win eight Oscars, as well as the hearts of millions around the world. To understand the use of conceit in its pure and historical literary sense, perhaps characterized as a form of “metaphorical hyperbole”, see the Wikipedia article below.

Conceit shouldn’t be confused with concept, which means a general notion or abstract idea (and, more colloquially, an idea or approach used to brand or market a product or range: “the iPad represents a new concept in personal computers”).

Let’s take the movies of Alfred Hitchcock, whose films are characterized by his use of various specific plot and theme devices (such as blonde women, mistaken identity, voyeurism, ordinary people in extraordinary situations, birds and trains). These are all concepts – the ultimate one being that of suspense – that make each of his films not just another psychological-mystery-suspense-thriller but specifically a “Hitchcock movie”. In fact, this (the Hitchcock movie) is a concept in itself so identifiable that “Hitchcockian” has become an adjective to describe a whole genre – or concept – of movie-making and story-telling. But each of his movies has its own unique and memorable conceit: In Rear Window, using the concept of voyeurism as an underlying theme, Hitchcock’s conceit is that of a man who witnesses a murder – or what the character believes to be a heinous crime – while spying on a neighbor through his window. In Shadow of a Doubt, Hitchcock makes use of a couple of concepts – the charming, likeable criminal and the “wrong man” – to furnish his conceit: a young woman discovers that her uncle – also her namesake and her idol – is really a serial killer whom the police believe to be dead.

Conceit and concept are clearly related etymologically through the word conceive (literally to “take into the womb, become pregnant” – from the old French conceveir, which in the 14th century took on a figurative sense – “take into or form in the mind” – found in old French and Latin words). From early on, conceit had strong associations with fanciful or witty notions, later taking on an additional pejorative sense to describe exaggerated poetic metaphors (hence its association in English literature with 17th-century metaphysical poets: see Wikipedia below). Presumably the extension of its meaning into vanity and self-importance takes these qualities of outlandishness and exaggeration and applies them to the self and one’s concept of oneself.


Wikipedia on “conceit”:


Metaphysical conceit

In English literature the term is generally associated with the 17th century metaphysical poets, an extension of contemporary usage. In the metaphysical conceit, metaphors have a much more purely conceptual, and thus tenuous, relationship between the things being compared. Helen Gardnerobserved that “a conceit is a comparison whose ingenuity is more striking than its justness” and that “a comparison becomes a conceit when we are made to concede likeness while being strongly conscious of unlikeness.” An example of the latter would be George Herbert’s “Praise (3),” in which the generosity of God is compared to a bottle which (“As we have boxes for the poor”) will take in an infinite amount of the speaker’s tears.

An often-cited example of the metaphysical conceit is the metaphor from John Donne’s “The Flea”, in which a flea that bites both the speaker and his lover becomes a conceit arguing that his lover has no reason to deny him sexually, although they are not married:

Oh stay! three lives in one flea spare
Where we almost, yea more than married are.
This flea is you and I, and this
Our marriage-bed and marriage-temple is.

When Sir Philip Sidney begins a sonnet with the conventional idiomatic expression “My true-love hath my heart and I have his”, but then takes the metaphor literally and teases out a number of literal possibilities and extravagantly playful conceptions in the exchange of hearts, the result is a fully formed conceit.

Petrarchan conceit

The Petrarchan conceit, used in love poetry, exploits a particular set of images for comparisons with the despairing lover and his unpitying but idolized mistress. For instance, the lover is a ship on a stormy sea, and his mistress “a cloud of dark disdain”; or else the lady is a sun whose beauty and virtue shine on her lover from a distance.

The paradoxical pain and pleasure of lovesickness is often described using oxymoron, for instance uniting peace and war, burning and freezing, and so forth. But images which were novel in the sonnets of Petrarch became clichés in the poetry of later imitators. Romeo uses hackneyed Petrarchan conceits when describing his love for Rosaline as “bright smoke, cold fire, sick health”.


In the Renaissance, the term (which is related to the word concept) indicated any particularly fanciful expression of wit, and was later used pejoratively of outlandish poetic metaphors. Recent literary critics have used the term to mean simply the style of extended and heightened metaphor common in the Renaissance and particularly in the 17th century, without any particular indication of value. Within this critical sense, the Princeton Encyclopedia makes a distinction between two kinds of conceits: the Metaphysical conceit, described above, and the Petrarchan conceit. In the latter, human experiences are described in terms of an outsized metaphor (a kind of metaphorical hyperbole), like the stock comparison of eyes to the sun, which Shakespeare makes light of in his sonnet 130: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”