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Many people would reference the term "inception" because of the Inception movie which pictured a dream inside a dream inside a dream (and so on).

I have read dictionaries and they all have explained the same thing that the term "inception" is actually "establishment of an activity".

  • Recursive composition? We all have this in our computers: our directories or folders on our hard disk drives. – Damkerng T. Oct 19 '16 at 15:15
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    Do you have a context in which you'd want to use this term? There are a few words and phrases I can think of that relate to this concept, but they are often used in different ways. People might say "that's meta" when something refers to itself. Computer scientists and programmers may refer to recursion. Others may make comparisons to Russian nesting dolls. – cbh Oct 19 '16 at 15:18
  • @cbh - You ought to expand that into an answer. I was getting ready to suggest nesting dolls, and apparently, we wouldn't be the first to make the comparison. – J.R. Oct 19 '16 at 15:21
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    Recursion is almost certainly the best formal term for it, like cbh says. The way the movie used the word "inception" was very specific to that movie, and doesn't really mean anything like that anywhere else. – stangdon Oct 19 '16 at 15:26
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    "Inception" in the movie doesn't have anything to do with nesting: it's the action of planting a false memory--starting it. – StoneyB on hiatus Oct 19 '16 at 15:45
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The word or phrase to use depends on context. Inception, as a word, has nothing to do with nested objects. As a movie title, however, that is what it makes people think about it, especially if the thing you're talking about is confusing. In that sense, you'd describe the structure by comparing it to the movie Inception, rather than saying it is an inception.

When people make this comparison, they are usually trying to be funny (though I feel like, after a few years, the humor has started to wear off). This may not always refer to "things within things," though. Often, this is just used to describe something complicated, or something with an unexpected "plot twist."

A: I'm writing a story about a person struggling to write a story about her parents, who are struggling writers.

B: Sounds like Inception. BWOOOONNNG.

An adjective that may fit your need is meta -- it's a colloquial word derived from the prefix, and is used when something refers to itself.

Psychology is thinking about how people think. As a Psychology professor, I have to think about how people think about how people think. It's pretty meta.

In computer science, the term is recursion, and you would describe such a structure as recursive. This is definitely the appropriate formal term for it. However, the term may only be well known by computer scientists, mathematicians, and programmers. The average person, especially if they're not particularly familiar with computers, may not really understand this word.

In a more informal context, a lot of people are familiar with Russian nesting dolls, in which dolls are contained within dolls within dolls. If you made a comparison with these dolls, your meaning would probably be clear.

The government is like a Russian nesting doll of bureaucracy. Bureaus overseeing agencies overseeing departments.

  • +1 The key is your final quote that uses nesting. This is the term the OP is looking for. Nested dreams or Dreams nested within each other. – Wayne May 26 '17 at 15:26

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