A friend accused me of being conceited.
I won’t deny it. Actually I can’t deny it because I’m not sure what it means.
People use conceited to mean arrogant and self-absorbed.
By that definition I am indeed conceited.
But I know for a fact that a conceit is also a literary device – an extended metaphor, often whimsical or hyperbolic.
I also know that a conceit is an idea formed in the mind, a notion, such that someone in a nineteenth century novel might say “I have this conceit about…” in the same way that we would say “I have an idea about…”
Conceit, conceive, concept, they are all related.
So how did conceit end up describing arrogance?
The missing link appears to be the self. Self-conceit was eventually shortened to conceit, and self-conceited to simply conceited.
A self-conceited person has conceits about himself. He’s formed hyperbolic and fanciful notions of his own qualities.
Arrogance comes from the Latin arrogare meaning “to claim for oneself, assume”.
We tend to think of arrogance and conceit as basically the same, but the etymology shows that they describe slightly different characteristics.
An arrogant person is too quick to ask for things, too presumptuous, too keen to claim privileges and benefits for themselves.
Where self-conceit implies an inward-looking vanity, arrogance implies an overbearing relation to others.
I’ve been writing about pride a lot lately and giving very specific religious definitions. But what about the etymology?
Pride, or rather proud is an interesting one.
It comes from the Old French for brave or valiant, without the negative connotations it carries today.
One theory is that the negative connotations of arrogance and haughtiness were attributed to the word as it entered the English language – reflecting the English disdain for their French rulers.
Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Which doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about narcissistic obsession with one’s appearance or self-image.
But that’s not what vain originally meant.
Vain means “empty”, from the Latin vanus meaning….empty.
Vain could be used to describe any enterprise or quality that lacked substance and true merit: vain efforts, vain struggle, vain wealth, vain self-regard.
We often describe people as vain, but originally it would have been their actions.
What use is it to tell people they have a high opinion of themselves?
You’re so vain, I bet you think this post is about you.
Vanity is a more powerful accusation than that – it shows up the futility and emptiness of our self-conceit and pride. That’s where it is truly cutting.