Archive for the 'Language' Category

The Fifth Essence

Keith January 19th, 2007

In the first post here, I used the word “quintessential”.  The definition of this word (thanks to one of my favourite reference sources – OneLook Dictionary Search) is “representing the perfect example of a class or quality.”  I have been familiar with the definition of this word, but until I dug a little deeper had never really thought about its etymology. 

The word – quite simply – comes from “fifth essence”.  From Dictionary.com: “(in ancient and mediaeval philosophy) the fifth essence or element, ether, supposed to be the constituent matter of the heavenly bodies, the others being air, fire, earth and water.”  It originated in the fifteenth century in Middle English, from the Mediaeval Latin quīnta essentia – fifth essence.

So to refer to something as quintessential is to infer that it is made of ether – or made of the matter of heavenly bodies?  (Hydrogen undergoing nuclear fusion?  Which heavenly bodies are we talking about here?)  How often are we unaware of where our words come from and what they originally meant?

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