Conceited now means stuck-up, but if you’ve ever taken a literature course, you may have heard the noun conceit used to refer to an elaborate metaphor. Edmund Spenser’s late sixteenth-century epic poem, The Faerie Queene, for example, is not only full of conceits, but is itself a great big conceit. As such, it represents the founding of the grand empire, Britain, through its Tudor monarch, Queen Elizabeth I. Even today, you might hear a person in a normal conversation referring to the conceit of a book, movie, or TV show. The conceit of Breaking Bad—cooking and distributing meth by Walter White, one of the least likely figures imaginable—represents the capacity of anyone, no matter how virtuous in the past, to turn evil and callous. Even for a high school chemistry teacher just trying to look out for his family after he dies of lung cancer, criminal behavior can be habit-forming.
The meaning of conceit as a literary device pre-dates the notion of someone’s being obnoxiously conceited, but how are the two concepts related, and how did the language migrate from the noun to the adjective? Conceit derives etymologically from conceive; devising a literary conceit, in essence, is the verbal equivalent of conceiving a baby. In fact, sixteenth-century poems brim over with the comparison between writing poetry and giving birth, perhaps most famously in the first sonnet in Sir Philip Sidney’s collection Astrophil and Stella. (Astrophil refers to himself as a poet who is “great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes . . . .”)
Before conceited was an adjective, conceit was a verb—a transitive verb, which means it took an object. As early as the sixteenth century, one friend might say to another, “Have you conceited the kind of birthday party you want this year?” (Eventually, the verb didn’t have to be transitive—so that someone might say, for instance, “In my spare time, I conceit for fun”—but that’s really beside the point of this discussion.)
The suggestion that to “conceit” something was to “conceive” or “imagine” it led, understandably, to the word’s being associated with fantasizing—to the notion, in other words, that whatever was “conceited” was possibly delusional. Such was particularly the case in the instance of “self-conceit.” That compound word arose in the early seventeenth century and usually had a derogatory meaning, referring to a person’s imagining himself to be other or greater than he really is. Obviously the idea of being “conceited”—being full of oneself— wasn’t a big leap from “self-conceit.” A conceited person may believe herself to be all that, but the connotation of the word is that nobody else agrees.