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"To conceive" has two primary meanings

  • to give birth
  • to originate (an idea)

Either one could be a metaphor for the other. MW just gave the etymology of the Latin parts without giving a history (and I don't have the OED available).

Which meaning came first?

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up vote 6 down vote accepted

I had a look for you in the OED and here is the most interesting part (highlight is mine):

[a. OF. concev-eir, -oir, (stressed stem conˈceiv-):—L. concipĕre, f. con- altogether + capĕre to take. The F. form of the word is assimilated to verbs in -ēre, while other Romanic langs. have -ĕre, -īre: cf. Pr. concebre, Sp. concebir, It. concépere and -cepére. 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’. The development is thus partly parallel to that of catch (esp. in branches VII, VIII), which word may be substituted for conceive in some uses.]

Having understood that the various senses already existed in the Latin word concipĕre, I turned to the extensive Perseus corpus of Latin works, which I warmly recommend.

I did not read all of the 5 pages of results. I just focused on classical Latin.

  • Cicero, Livy use it in a great variety of ways (conceive feelings or ideas "have a take on" events).
  • Pliny and Lucretius use extensively the term in its biological sense.
  • Later scholar works also use it in a medical sense of "showing symptoms of" (fever).

I also looked up concipio in the Oxford Latin Dictionary (1968) and there are no less than 13 different meanings for this verb. Only 2 of them in the sense of to "engender".

So there's no clear cut answer even in classical Latin, I'm afraid.

The only indication comes from the OED clause "where the primary notion was app. ‘to take effectively, take to oneself, take in and hold".

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Amazing research. – Rei Miyasaka Apr 14 '11 at 10:56
Wow. Thanks for the excellent links to online resources. So this makes me think that there's a whole multi-language cultural borrowing system going on, not just for this one word, and not just for English. Which leads to either a whole slew of other questions, or one big question... – Mitch Apr 14 '11 at 14:08
@Mitch, you are so right. Even at remote periods such as the Roman "Mare Nostrum" era or the Late Middle Ages there have been so many exchanges between so many nations. Wherever we stand today we are heirs to this soup of cultures of which we actually know so little. – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 14 '11 at 14:17
And since following this multi-language discussion is probably inappropriate, let me do one possibly inappropriate single extra thing and recommend that people interested in pursuing questions like this to please commit to the Linguistics Stackexchange Q&A site. – Mitch Apr 14 '11 at 14:37
@Mitch, Sure ! As for me, I've already committed following @Billare's suggestion. – Alain Pannetier Φ Apr 14 '11 at 15:04

Etymonline reports that conceive with the meaning of "become pregnant" is from late 13th century, while with the meaning of "take into the mind" is from middle 14th century.
The figurative sense was also used in Latin, and Old French.

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Though I can't say with any certainty, I would argue that conception (and consequently to conceive) originally had a religious origin, the most classic of origins being the birth of jesus. At a certain point, referring to the birth of Jesus as merely "birth" probably didn't hold enough importance (much like baptism was created to replace "being dunked in water") so a new word was created with almost symbolic links as the start of something new.

Hence "conception" began to take new meaning as the creation of something or the "birth" of a new idea.

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Alain's research seems to refute this suggestion. – Colin Fine Apr 14 '11 at 11:45
Good for Alain. The fact that his answer is uprated more than mine would already tend to indicate it's the more popular response, though you're welcome to believe whatever you want. I'll leave my answer here in case anyone wanted to downrate it. – Neil Apr 14 '11 at 12:01

Con ce pere - from the father. This is also possible

Biologically the fertilisation of the ovum - the first zygote

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Preceding the Latin concipĕre? – Mari-Lou A Apr 30 '15 at 11:32

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