The Grammarphobia Blog

Reconceptual analysis

Q: You’ve defended the verbing of nouns as a process that goes back to the early days of English. What do you think of this one—a restaurant space “reconcepted into a modern tavern”?

A: Both “concepted” and “reconcepted” are occasionally seen in writing, the latter often in articles about restaurant makeovers (the quote you spotted comes from a 2016 review on Zagat.com). But the usage isn’t common.

These words are past participle forms (often used adjectivally) of a verb—to “concept”—that’s little used and largely unrecognized by lexicographers.

We checked 10 standard American and British dictionaries and found only one, Dictionary.com, that includes “concept” as a verb (none have the derivative “reconcept”).

Dictionary.com labels the use of “concept” as a verb “informal,” and says it means “to develop a concept of; conceive.” This is the example given: “He concepted and produced three films.”

In a column written more than a decade ago, the author and lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower notes that the verb “concept” has appeared occasionally in advertising-industry jargon (“Is Concept a Verb?” Slate, May 12, 2006).

He quotes an example from Adweek: “He’s the only creative person I ever met that had his ideas concepted, shot and edited the moment he presented it to you.”

Sheidlower says the usual substitute for “concept” is “conceive,” though “Ad people use concept to refer to a broader range of work than just thinking up a general idea—it’s closer to design but without the aesthetic notions usually associated with that word. (Interestingly, some engineers use the term in a similar sense.)”

He notes that the verb isn’t found in dictionaries because it “isn’t ready yet.” He adds, “When it is, it’ll get put in.” Apparently, the word still isn’t ready. The leading dictionary publishers haven’t decreed it common enough, and judging by our research it hasn’t entered everyday usage.

Most of the examples we’ve found have been from press releases, trade publications, and promotional websites of the past decade or so. We’ve found only a handful in the mainstream media, including these (note how forms of “concept” and “reconcept” are used):

“James runs a production company in Vancouver so he was up on how to concept a video” (Vancouver Sun, Dec. 6, 2018).

“Sixteen, the two-star Michelin restaurant housed in the Trump International Hotel, is closing to reconcept” (Chicago Tribune, March 21, 2018).

“As it turned out, this was the very first character Bigloo created—and he concepted it perfectly on the first try” (Forbes, March 11, 2019).

“The food mirrors the art at the newly opened and re-concepted Untitled, located inside The Whitney Museum” (HarpersBazaar.com, June 1, 2015).

We gather that in the restaurant industry, “concepting” isn’t just a matter of decor, though that’s usually involved. It means developing a theme, a menu, and a philosophy of “plating.” (Restaurateurs use “plate” as a verb. It means to put food on a plate, a usage dating to 1953.)

As we’ve said, Dictionary.com is the only standard dictionary to recognize the verb “concept.” It’s an exclusively digital dictionary, based on Random House Unabridged, that’s updated by a staff of lexicographers.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, also has an entry for “concept” as a verb, defined simply as “to conceive (in various senses).” Not one of the OED’s examples uses “concept” in the Dictionary.com sense “to develop a concept of.”

Oxford says the verb was first recorded in the early 17th century and was “rare” afterwards. The earliest known evidence is from a letter written from London on March 25, 1603, by Sir Thomas Ferrers to his brother, Sir Henry:

“The Lord Keaper, with the rest … came all to Whitt Hawlle, having at Richmond … concepted and sett downe by generall agryment this proclemation herwith sent.” (The proclamation of March 24, 1603, announced the death of Queen Elizabeth and the succession of James I.)

In that passage, “concept” is used in one of the senses of “conceive” that’s listed in the OED (“to plan, devise, or formulate”). In other citations, it takes on additional senses of “conceive” (“to become pregnant” … “form the idea of” … “comprehend” … “understand,” and so on).

The OED also has an entry for the adjective “concepted,” defined as “conceived, formed, produced.” But most of the examples are from the 17th and 18th centuries, and the dictionary says it’s “now rare.”

As for the etymology, the OED says the verb “concept” was developed partly from the post-classical Latin verb conceptare (to conceive in the womb) and partly from the 15th-century English noun “concept.”

The noun had multiple origins, too. It developed partly from the classical Latin noun conceptum (something conceived), derived from the past participle of concipere (to conceive), and partly as an alteration of the 14th-century noun “conceit,” which can also be traced to concipere and which originally meant a notion or a conception.

The dictionary’s earliest example of the noun, and the only citation from the 1400s, is from a 1479 religious treatise referring to a “sinistre, or vayne concept.” In that example, Oxford says, the word means “something conceived in the mind; a notion, idea, image, or thought.”

[Note: We wrote a post on the pronunciation of the verb “concept” in June 2019.]

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