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This article is part of the Figures of Speech course. You may choose to follow it in a structured way, or read each item separately.

A conceit is the name given in literary studies to a particular kind of image.

  • This is a very far-fetched or unlikely comparison, often extended, as when John Donne (1572-1633) wrote a whole poem using the image of a flea to persuade his mistress to go to bed with him. It may help some students to know that, in this sense, a conceit is the same word as concept, or idea. Here, one of Hamlet's soliloquies may be illuminating:
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
(Shakespeare, Hamlet, III ii).
  • Sometimes, confusingly, the word conceit is used for a sudden spark of insight, a quick, very imaginative and highly telling image.

(In more everyday English, conceit is a characteristic of personality.

  • If someone is conceited (a common expression of the idea), he has too high an opinion of himself: he thinks he is more valuable, or better, than anyone around him believes him to be.)
  • It used to be more neutral. The phrase 'in my conceit' meant simply 'in my opinion' or 'in my understanding' - according to the concept I have.