This week’s Word Nerd is one of those that actually surprised me; I thought that because the two are relatively harder to spell than most of our frequently-confused words, fewer people would mess them up. Of course, the fact that they evolved from different conjugations of the same Latin word may have something to do with the confusion.
Conscience: the thing in your brain that knows right from wrong.
Conscious: being awake and aware; paying attention.
Conscience came to the English language in the 13th Century, unchanged from the Old French, who got it about 100 years prior from the Latin conscientia, which means “knowledge within oneself, sense of right, a moral sense.” It ultimately came from the combination of two Latin words, con- meaning “with,” or “thoroughly,” and scire meaning “to know”. Conscire is most likely a direct translation from the Greek syneidesis, literally “with-knowledge.”
Conscious also derives from conscire, though it doesn’t appear in English until about 1600 (and was mocked at the time for being lifted from the Latin poets). Conscious means “knowing, privy to.” It wasn’t used in the sense of “active and awake” until 1837.
So here we have two words from the same root, that mean similar things, but they aren’t interchangeable. Conscious describes a state of being; you are either conscious or unconscious, awake or asleep. Conscience describes a mental function that one can apply or not, to varying degrees. The first is about being aware of what’s going on around you, and the second is about knowing the right thing to do.
If you say your conscious is bothering you, you’re saying you don’t like being awake.
If you say you’re unconscience, you’re saying you are a sociopath.