Inception and Conception

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A reader has asked for a post on the words inception and conception, speculating, “Might they be synonymous?”

Conception comes from a Latin verb meaning, “to become pregnant.”

Inception comes from the Latin verb incipere, “to begin.”

Both conception and inception relate to beginnings.


The literal meaning of conception is “the action of conceiving offspring in the womb.”

Mom must make conscious diet and lifestyle choices during. the conception period.—CNN

It’s seamless and consistent, carrying us from conception through natural death.—Boston Herald

Recessive traits are only expressed if you get two copies of them at conception.—Science Blogs

Figuratively, conception refers to the creation of a mental image, idea, or concept of anything. This type of conception can be anything imagined in the mind, from the original idea for a work of art to an opinion.

The newly discovered red giant star S1020549 dominates this artist’s conception.—Science Daily

The systemistas [systems suppliers] have been intimately involved in Blue Macaw from its conception.—Economist

I absolutely have no conception of thinking that arming teachers is a good idea.—Charlotte Observer

The word inception is defined as “the action of entering upon some undertaking, process, or stage of existence; origination, beginning, commencement.”

These companies have appeared on the list each year since its inception in 1999.—Forbes

This is the fourth in a series following a play from inception to opening night.—Times Union

These measurements also marked the inception of cosmology as a precise science.—Science Daily

Based upon a definition that includes the idea of “entering upon some stage of existence,” the word inception can arguably be seen as a synonym for conception. However, a useful distinction is to be drawn between the figurative use of conception as a beginning seated in the mind and inception as a beginning in the physical world.

That being said, the movie Inception (2010) may have added a new layer of meaning to the word.

A science-fiction film, Inception is based on the concept of lucid dreaming, “a hybrid state of consciousness with features of both waking and dreaming” (Mutz and Javadi), in which the dreamer exerts control over events in the dream. The characters in the movie interact on differing planes of sleep and wake. The chief goal of the protagonists is to plant a reality-altering idea in a man’s mind by entering his dreams.

The many websites at which fans discuss the movie include threads debating the meaning of the title.

In a dictionary, Inception means “the beginning.” But when it comes to Inception the movie, the meaning is different. In the movie, inception means implanting an idea into someone’s subconscious mind through a dream.

The main purpose of the film [is] to incept* its audience with the ideas that promote lucid dreaming. Dom [the character played by DiCaprio] is convinced it is possible to implant information. He explains that this cannot be done directly, but that one must plant a seed in the form of an idea that will grow into thoughts and change that person’s behavior. Thus Inception refers to this initial implanting of an idea.

The verb incept (ingest, take in) is used in these comments as if it meant inseminate or implant. It is clear from comments like “one must plant a seed” that the literal meaning of conception is understood to underpin the use of Inception as the movie’s title. Technically, Conception might have had a better claim, but potential viewers would almost certainly have expected it to be about childbirth.

Interestingly, the title of film that launched the genre of “what is real?” movies—The Matrix—links to conception in its literal sense.

matrix (derived from mater, “mother)
Classical Latin: female animal kept for breeding
Post-classical Latin: womb

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2 thoughts on “Inception and Conception”

  1. Interesting, I’ve never connected Matrix’s title with Latin’s “mater” for some reason, but it makes complete sense. On that note, wouldn’t it be derivative from “matris” (genitive case of “mater”)? So, then, the title of the movie would literally mean: “of the mother” or “belonging to the mother”. Or am I way off with this?

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