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What Does "in Embryo" Mean?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 23, 2024
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Recently, a new idiom has entered the linguistic stream. People have begun to refer to projects or ideas that are just at the beginning stages, haven’t been well thought out, or are relatively formless as being in embryo or embryonic. Being in embryo doesn’t necessarily have negative connotations. A potentially brilliant idea that has been tossed into a meeting might be embryonic because it hasn’t had the necessary time to develop to a sufficiently mature state.

Perhaps the origin of this relative newcomer can be found in contemporary culture. There is an ongoing conversation, which often erupts into an ongoing argument, about whether or not a human embryo is a human being. Regardless of whether a person takes a right-to-choice or right-to-life position, everyone would have to agree that embryos cannot survive on their own. They need a protected environment where they are provided the right nutrition and protected from rough handling, loud noises, or other unpleasantness until they are ready to join the world.

Just like the next as yet unborn generation, it can be said that ideas, plans, and even relationships are "in embryo." Given time and careful nurturing, these things might be expected to emerge in full glory and with much personality, capable of fulfilling their true promise. For the moment, however, a scientific or political theory that doesn’t have research to back it up, an architectural drawing that requires a certain type of hill that hasn’t yet been located, or what could become true love after boy has just met girl are all situations that could be described as being in embryo.

Once these things come to fruition, there is a whole other set of sayings and idiomatic expressions ready to cradle the newborns. A newly minted project might be referred to as a hatchling, for example. If problems become apparent as team members develop the project, the team leader might caution the others not to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

While the newly birthed concept or relationship is developing, it might be moved forward carefully and delicately as though it were walking with baby steps. Eventually, such a concept will need to mature enough to stand on its own, but for now, it’s as weak as a baby. If, over time, it becomes apparent that the project isn’t going to work out as hoped, those who invested in the concept when it was in embryo might cry like babies.

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Discussion Comments
By anon318531 — On Feb 07, 2013

I have heard this expression for at least 40 years. Your thesis is kind of corny, but there you go.

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