Thursday, February 08, 2007

Immaterial conceptions

A curious friend has been hounding me for an answer about semantic development and dating. Regarding the verb conceive he's been wondering about the original meaning. Specifically, which meaning came first: "become pregnant" or "get and idea." We see Shakespeare using the word as a pun in The Taming of the Shrew --

Widow: Thus I conceive by him.
Petruchio: Conceives by me! How likes Hortensio that?

And in Hamlet --
Hamlet: ...Have you a daughter?
Polonious: I have, my lord.
Ham.: Let her not walk i' th' sun. Conception is a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive, friend, look to't.1

And elsewhere. Many of Shakespeare's uses of the word don't lend themselves so easily to a pun. He leans heavily towards the verb meaning to understand, perceive or consider.

The office desktop Webster's doesn't provide much help, telling us only that it came from Old French then giving the OF form without a gloss. One rule of thumb for dictionary etymologies might be that when the etymon is provided without definition the meaning is the same as the last one mentioned. The word has been borrowed as is.

But his Webster's doesn't give root words and morphemes thorough attention. So we can go to the OED for that. Surely there we will find out what the early roots meant and what the word first meant: we'll get a look at the entire dossier of to conceive.

According to the OED the Latin word was concipĕre, comprising con- altogether and capĕre to take.

We also find that "Nearly all the senses found in Fr. and Eng. were already developed in L., where the primary notion was app. ‘to take effectively, take to oneself, take in and hold’."

This isn't either of the definitions in question. We have here a more concrete meaning from which two other narrowings developed in French and English as well as in the original Latin. So which meaning branched first?

Of the two meanings (become pregnant and understand) the OED cites Cursor Mundi a pre-1300 northern text that refers to Mary's conception, through the holy spirit, of "þat blisful child." This transitive form is accompanied by an intransitive form in the same text which asks "Womman þat neuer neghed man, Conceiue hu sal sco?" ("A woman that never knew man: how shall she conceive?")

The OED cites John Gower's Confessio amantis in 1393 possibly using the word as a "conscious reference" to a passive sense (to be conceived) and the intransitive mentioned above.

This same text is cited as using a sense as we currently use "catch" in the phrase "catch a cold," without the necessary connotation of illness. The citations demonstrate this usage with such conceptions as sickness (Gower 1393) and putrefaction (Bonet 1684), but in one example a plant blooms after conceiving water (Golding 1587), and flax and tinder are described as being "apt to conceiue fire" (Hakewill 1621).

That's just the first branch of the word. Branch II "To take into, or form in, the mind" gives Richard Rolle of Hampole's Psalter vii, pre-1340 as its earliest citation: "He hais consayued sorow."

"To form and entertain (an opinion)" is an obselete usage first cited in John Wyclif's Selected Works c1380: "We wolen seie opinli þe sentence þat we conseyven." And its contemporary meaning "To form (a purpose, design, etc.) in the mind; to plan devise, formulate in idea" is cited as well, even as early as 1340.

Other very closely related uses are cited from c1340 in Hampole and c1330 in Robert Manning of Brunne's Chronicle.

To speak more of the origins before or outside English, the third branch is identified by the OED as being variegated and "mostly after Latin." Having previously seen that Latin saw pretty much all the meanings that we find in French and English, this looks like our catch-all category. Many of these uses are cited with later sources. We didn't expect to find the influence of Latin ending without a fight did we?

Many of these forms are very similar to those we've already considered. There are some specific uses such as the executing a legal action, formulating or uttering a prayer or other speech, or taking an oath.

Another very early citation is of King Alisaunder c1300. "How hent the gentil knyghtis, How they conceyved heom in fyghtis." This is a reflexive verb meaning "to comport oneself."

The answer to your question Casey? Though we're dealing with citations and approximate dates (note all those c's and a's before dates) I like the clarity offered by the Latin etymon. A verb meaning "to take together" might prudently be considered the general verb that eventually narrowed. Because English conceive reflects the semantic spectrum of concipĕre in Latin we should not be surprised to see no clear precedence of one meaning over the other in English. Whether an idea or a fact or some water or fire or a zygote was "taken in" first doesn't look to be a salient detail of the word's English time line.

I'm sure somewhere the bifurcation in Latin might be more clearly placed temporally. But not in the OED.

The OED does not give much attention to IE roots. For those I like to consult Webster's New World. Following the word back to the IE root we find the base *kap- meaning "to grasp." Following this forward then leads us to the Latin capĕre which Webster's claims had the primary sense "to hold, have in hand."

The hand is about equidistant from the belly and the mind.

1. The line in F1 reads "but not as your daughter..." This changes the pun slightly. It directs the meaning more clearly towards become pregnant. I like the editions excluding "not" and focusing on Hamlet mocking Polonious' desire to keep Ophelia innocent/naive. Because the old man has previously warned Ophelia about tendering him a fool the semantic ambivalence is nicely preserved.


  1. Now that is what I call an "answer."

    Incidentally, would that make capĕre the root in words like "perceive" and "receive" and even "inception?" There's something masonic going on here--might even involve the Templars.

  2. Casey, I was thinking exactly that as I read perceive.
    Perceive then, derives from 'take through', which, with a little bit of semantic shift, is plausible, certainly with whatever semantic shift has occurred with conceive.

    With inception, 'take in', notice there is also exception 'take out', a nice minimal pair, I think. And both are closer to the Latin capĕre.

  3. Nice catch. Perceive was indeed per- + capĕre and in Latin it had the narrowed application of sensing or understanding.

    The 'take in' root of inception is harder for me to tag. As the in- prefix can mean 'in' or 'on' in Latin, the sense 'to take on' sounds good to me. And as you note, Jaŋgari, exception is pretty clear. I too like the close resemblance to the Latin form.

    And we shouldn't look past the obvious connection to capture and captive.

    But my favourite connection is to the word have. There's so much to learn just from the stories told by this one word and its historical phonology.


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