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concept: an abstract idea; a general notion

conception: the way in which something is perceived or regarded

These two words are troubling me because it seems that there is a way that concept and conception can be used near-identically or near-interchangeably and in a way that differ only to the extent of some kind of inflection.

I'm not a linguist, but I think inflection, though very general, might be the grammatical idea most likely to address this problem. Is there a more specific way of stating the relation between these two usages?

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I doubt there's a recognised term in linguistics for the relationship, but sticking with the metaphor I'd say they are cousins. As both answers have made clear, concept is not the direct "parent" of conception - you have to go back to Latin to find their common ancestor. –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 2:48

4 Answers 4

Generally, concept is used when referring to an objective idea/entity (as in the concept of eleven dimensions is hard to grasp), while conception refers to a certain person's subjective idea of something (as in his conceptions about English seem a little misguided). The difference, then, on at least one level, is objectivity.

Inflection refers to the modification of a word to express different grammatical categories (e.g. hitting is an inflected form of hit). This does not apply here. The only difference between the two nouns concept and conception is in meaning and usage.

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I don't think the OP wants to know the relation as much as the difference. S/he thought inflection might fit, and inflection is a difference, not a relation. Another giveaway is this quote: ...in a way that differs only to the extent of some kind of inflection. Though the title and the last line say relation, I think the OP already knows the relation - the words are both nouns and both mean idea. –  Daniel Oct 24 '11 at 19:04
    
I'm afraid I can't take the credit for that creativity :) Someone here at ELU used it once. –  Daniel Oct 24 '11 at 19:08
    
FWIW, I found that Wikipedia also includes s/he as a gender-neutral pronoun substitute. –  Daniel Oct 24 '11 at 20:28
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+1 Also, you may have seen me use s/he. I'm a big proponent. –  onomatomaniak Oct 25 '11 at 7:17

Concept is derived from Latin conceptum, the past participle of concipio, and meant ‘that which is conceived’ (but not sexually). Conception is also ultimately from the same Latin verb, but comes to us via the noun conceptio, of which one meaning was 'the act of becoming pregnant'. That is the meaning it had when it first appeared in English in the early fourteenth century, but it soon started to be used figuratively for ‘the action or faculty of conceiving in the mind, or of forming an idea or notion of anything; apprehension, imagination.’

The relation between the two words is thus to be sought in Latin rather than English. It appears not to be the case, for instance, that conception is formed from concept by the addition of the suffix –ion.

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All that said, how is the Latin etymology relevant to the modern differences/relationships between the words? To be complete, this answer should show in what way this history affects the current meanings. The question was on the level of modern grammar/linguistics, not etymology; therefore, unless the etymology helps explain the differences, it is not pertinent. –  Daniel Oct 24 '11 at 19:44
    
It was a roundabout way of knocking on the head the OP's suggestion that there might be an inflectional relationship between the two words in English. There isn't. In spite of their common origin, they are to be treated as two different words that happen to be similarly spelt. I thought it important to establish that point. –  Barrie England Oct 24 '11 at 19:53
    
Agreed that inflection played no real part in how we come to have these two closely-related words. The route to our modern usage of conception is figurative extension from the conceive sense. The reason we did this is presumably because we have need of such a word in our conversations and writing. The answer looks correct and comprehensive enough to me. –  FumbleFingers Oct 25 '11 at 2:42

While not a technical linguistic term, the phrase shades of meaning comes to mind to describe the relationship.

I think that the words being somewhat related in form and etymology (and I think @Barrie's answer is very interesting as to how such closely related words acquired their different shades of meaning) is causing some confusion here. I am not sure if the OP means to ask about words that are almost interchangeable AND seem closely related. I chose to answer the first part.

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The answer to the question of what is the linguistic term for the difference between concept and conception:

Yes, linguistics does have a term for such a thing, in fact, it's one of a handful of major fields of study- morphology. Simply put, it's the study of distinct units of meaning smaller than a word. That extra bit of -ion encodes a subtle difference in meaning, which is a general WAY of thinking about something, versus the specific instantiation of that idea.

Inflection doesn't encode changes in meaning per say, but specific types of information which relate words in a sentence in agreement relations, such as person and number. E.g. the subject is singular and 3rd person and this agrees with the verb in 'they cook dinner,' but 'they cooks dinner' is bad. Concept and conception are both nouns and there is no agreement relation, just a relation in meaning.

Inflection is a type of morphology, but it's much more specific. The -ti on here would be considered derivational mirohology. This type of morphology may also change a words category, e.g. help (noun) and help-ing (verb).

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