incipient

adjective

in·​cip·​i·​ent in-ˈsi-pē-ənt How to pronounce incipient (audio)
: beginning to come into being or to become apparent
an incipient solar system
evidence of incipient racial tension
incipiently adverb

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A good starting point for any investigation of incipient is the Latin verb incipere, which means "to begin." Incipient emerged in English in the 17th century, appearing in both religious and scientific contexts, as in "incipient grace" and "incipient putrefaction." Later came the genesis of two related nouns, incipiency and incipience, both of which are synonymous with beginning. Incipere also stands at the beginning of the words inception ("an act, process, or instance of beginning") and incipit, a term that literally means "it begins" and which was used for the opening words of a medieval text. Incipere itself derives from another Latin verb, capere, which means "to take" or "to seize."

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Insipid vs. Incipient

There are those who claim that these two words are commonly confused, though the collected evidence in our files doesn’t support that claim (in edited prose, that is). If there is confusion, it is likely because incipient is sometimes used in constructions where its meaning is not clear.

Insipid is less common than incipient, but it is used more in general prose and with much more clarity than incipient is. Insipid means “weak,” and it can refer to people (“insipid hangers-on”), things (“what an insipid idea,” “painted the room an insipid blue,” “he gave his boss an insipid smile”), and specifically flavors or foods (“an insipid soup,” “the cocktail was insipid and watery”).

Incipient, on the other hand, is more common than insipid is and means “beginning to come into being or become apparent.” It has general use (“an incipient idea,” “incipient racial tensions”), but also has extensive specialized use in medicine (“an incipient disease”) and other scientific fields (“an incipient star in a distant galaxy”). But general use of incipient is sometime vague at best:

But devaluing grand slams to 3 1/2 runs has irked even the guys it was meant to pacify. "They're messing with the game," says incipient slugger Randy Johnson (three grannies already this spring). "Not to mention my RBI totals."
ESPN, 14 June 1999

Among my generation of aesthetes, bohemians, proto-dropouts, and incipient eternal students at Sydney University in the late 1950s, Robert Hughes was the golden boy.
— Clive James, The New York Review, 11 Jan. 2007

This menu looks traditional but embraces ingredients and ideas that have become incipient classics in American cuisine, such as portobello mushrooms, fresh mozzarella and mango.
— Harvey Steiman, Wine Spectator, 30 Nov. 1995

Incipient is rarely used of people, and so the first example is an atypical use of the word. As for the other examples, can something that is just beginning to emerge be eternal, or a classic? Uses like this tend to confuse the reader.

If you find yourself unsure of which word to use, follow the rule that when referring to someone or something weak, use insipid, and when referring to something that is newly apparent or newly begun, use incipient.

Examples of incipient in a Sentence

The project is still in its incipient stages. I have an incipient dislike and distrust of that guy, and I only met him this morning.
Recent Examples on the Web Heralding the incipient tsunami of holiday programming, this may be the one program to watch, perhaps while preparing Thanksgiving dinner. John Anderson, WSJ, 21 Nov. 2023 That incipient definition characterized a lot of early thinking about dyslexia. Sarah Carr, Scientific American, 16 Nov. 2023 But Friday, especially a wet Friday, provided a reminder of the differences between one day and the next, as well as of autumn’s incipient chill. Martin Weil, Washington Post, 11 Nov. 2023 At the same time, all that new, cheap fuel helped prolong the U.S.’s carbon addiction for years, with incipient renewables unable to compete against natural gas. Time, 7 Aug. 2023 While still in its incipient stages, working with AI will also become more important over the years. Jon Stojan, USA TODAY, 4 Aug. 2023 Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, a long Soviet skeptic, ended those incipient plans, and the coup failed. Joseph Torigian, Fortune, 3 July 2023 Zahra takes readers through events as disparate as the American pacifist movement and central European famines during World War I before delving into incipient fascism and the rise of the Bolsheviks after the war, the growth of immigration restrictions, and the rise of Nazism. Mark Mazower, Foreign Affairs, 18 Apr. 2023 This year’s meeting, presumably presaging less incipient drama, starts Feb. 23. Michael L. Millenson, Forbes, 13 Feb. 2023 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'incipient.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Etymology

Latin incipient-, incipiens, present participle of incipere to begin — more at inception

First Known Use

1633, in the meaning defined above

Time Traveler
The first known use of incipient was in 1633

Dictionary Entries Near incipient

Cite this Entry

“Incipient.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/incipient. Accessed 6 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition

incipient

adjective
in·​cip·​i·​ent in-ˈsip-ē-ənt How to pronounce incipient (audio)
: beginning to come into being or to become apparent
the incipient light of day
incipiently adverb

Medical Definition

incipient

adjective
in·​cip·​i·​ent -ənt How to pronounce incipient (audio)
: beginning to come into being or to become apparent
the incipient stage of a fever
incipiently adverb

More from Merriam-Webster on incipient

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