Film Phrase

Inception: Layers upon Layers of Meaning

Regardless of whether you've seen this movie, you're bound to have heard the word buzzing around. New meanings of "inception" are becoming the norm, and this is no dream.

Regardless of whether you’ve seen this movie, you’re bound to have heard the word buzzing around. New meanings of “inception” are becoming the norm, and this is no dream.

Inception, n. [in·cep·tion, inˈsepSH(ə)n].

Whilst blissfully web browsing last night instead of doing research for my Caribbean literature class, I ended up on more than a few film blogs, because who doesn’t like film criticism? Among the swath of open tabs was a number of reviews for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, releasing everywhere on Nov. 7th. Many reviews portend that the director-slash-screenwriter’s daring dreams will give rise to a film of epic proportions. This kind of ambition, critics argue, hasn’t been seen since Nolan’s 2010 hit, Inception.

Inception. I hadn’t thought about that movie in a while. What a mindblower, amiright? Game changer though it may have been for the world of film (and, if you’re like me, the interior world of paranoid dream analysis every morning), this film unintentionally shook up an entirely different realm of culture, and in an entirely different way than could have been predicted. You guessed it: this film has utterly changed the meaning of the word “inception” and how we use and perceive it in the lexicon of the 21st century.

1. The word “inception” is traditionally defined (i.e., Merriam-Webster style) as “an act, process, or instance of beginning; commencement” and meant just that from the late 1300s till 2010. It’s the start of something; nothing more, nothing less. And it’s the crucial idea at the core of the film’s ideological plot: characters plant inklings of an idea into someone’s subconscious. The planted seed is the instance of an idea’s beginning—its inception—of growth in that person’s mind. So far, so good; the title matches the word’s traditional definition.

2. But the next step into deeper waters is where denotations vs connotations start to get a little bit tricky. The characters in the film prompt the idea’s beginnings by dream-hacking, or invading the target’s dreams and interacting with him in the subconscious dream-realm. Discussion of the film by casual movie-goers and critics alike concentrated on this unique plot aspect, and, as predicted by a Johnson post on The Economist, began to actually shape the meaning of the word “inception.” Sure enough, has added a special alternate definition to the “inception” entry reflecting this:

“(in science fiction) the act of instilling an idea into someone’s mind by entering his or her dreams.”

Just like that, the premise of a film changed the entire meaning of a word. Instead of simply meaning “the start of something,” inception has garnered the meaning of convincing another to do whatever you would like them to by making them feel it was their own idea. It’s the persuasive process of prompting of a beginning. Don’t believe me? Urban dictionary’s entry describes just that (though perhaps, per usual, more lewdly).

3. And yet. In researching the fun-filled-film-facts (sorry I had to) surrounding this word, the thing that really amazed me is that my most readily-accessible current understanding of this word is completely different from either of the two meanings we’ve looked at so far, and hasn’t been added to’s entry just yet. It’s the third meaning implied when people post pictures like with the caption “Inception Cat: A Cat Within a Cat.” It’s also the meaning implied in an email sent to me by a classmate (props to Paul Snider) when he caught himself using the word: “So I was writing about a parasite inside a parasite that blocks another parasite and thought of using ‘inception’ and thought of you.”

dude... it's like a cat......... within a cat

dude… it’s like a cat……… within a cat

In effect, this connotation refers back to the film once more: the team goes into dreams within dreams in attempts to plant the idea in the very deepest level of the target’s subconscious. This third meaning of “inception,” then, describes the way in which almost identical things can be imbedded within each other like Russian nesting dolls.

And here, my friends, is where the great irony lies:

Inception (Meaning no.2: implanting your idea into someone else’s mind) is the way that you would prompt an inception of an idea (Meaning no.1: the beginning of something).


Inception of an inception of an inception.

“Inception” is truly bizarre in this aspect. Spurred by a film, this one word has sprouted multiple shoots in a matter of a couple years. Keeping the original meaning in mind, our culture has come to associate aspects of the film’s plot with that word, thus creating two more meanings as well. Yet all three different meanings of the single word are in current circulation in our modern lexicon, garnering their own life beyond the confines of film discussion: the first, a more formal word; the second, an ideology of persuasion; the third, a clever phenomenon. It astounds me that a single pop culture artifact can so transform a word, but it astounds me even more that our word-rich society can lithely tweet about, joke with, and otherwise smoothly use all three at once without skipping a beat. This, millennials, is what makes “inception” a neologism in the truest sense. While I can’t guarantee that Interstellar will change the meaning of its namesake word in quite the same way, I can guarantee that the contemporary conversation that shapes the contour of common language can and will come from the most unlikely of places. Keep your ears open, your eyes peeled, and your mouths (and thumbs) moving—you’ll be a language game-changer before you know it.


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