The Fifth Essence

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 “(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?

The thing that I love about the English Language is its evolution.  As much as some changes may seem unnecessary, annoying or plain stupid (yes, I’m a member of the AAAA – the Association for the Abolition of the Aberrant Apostrophe) it is still a fact.  We have no equivalent to the Académie française to make definitive rules of correctness. 

Even our grammatical “rules” are only conventions.  Some of our attempts to apply rules to English grammar are actually derived from Latin grammar, and do not really apply to the rich background of sources that English draws its vocabulary from.  This is the purpose for the famous Winston Churchill quote: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

This quote is not without controversy – there seems to be a fair amount of doubt about the precise wording, when he said it, to whom he said it, and precisely what he was referring to.  In fact, it is unclear if it was spoken at all, or only written.  The one thing that is clear is that he used it as a rejection of the grammatical “rule” against ending a sentence with a preposition – such as the first sentence of this paragraph.  Slavishly following this sort of rule can result in some very awkward language.
Another example of this battle is in an anecdote from the USA: a Southerner stopped a stranger on the Harvard campus and asked, “Could you please tell me where the library is at?”  The stranger responded, “Educated people never end their sentences with a preposition.”  The polite Southerner then apologetically repeated himself: “Could you please tell me where the library is at, you jerk?”

There is a detailed argument supporting the rejection of this rule, but I will not repeat it all here.  In short, the rule is derived from a Latin rule that involves the use of the Ablative case.  As English does not have case endings on nouns that are objects of prepositions, the rule is thus irrelevant in English. 

I love the English language…


  1. Nice to hear from you, Lance… Another classic palindrome is Adam introducing himself to Eve: “Madam, I’m Adam”. Or “A man, a plan, a canal: Panama!” There’s lots to see at – but many of them are rather contrived, and/or not suitable for reproduction here…

  2. I like the English language too, I find looking at the roots of word fascinating. I quite liked when I studies Japanese the sheer logic of it…there was only ever 2 ways of saying a word, and only ever one spelling. However there isn’t the incredible variety in our language, the nuance…it is something I really appreciate. On another note, I really like palindromes…i saw one the other day I’d never realised was a palindrome: racecar. I also like Glenelg…

  3. Like all good etymology there is usually more than one theory. The one I heard was that “quintessential” was a medieval apothecary’s term meaning distilled (or whatever other purification method in use) 5 successive times. In other words, very very pure.

    And now for my etymological humour.

    Q: What is the difference between an etymologist and an entomologist?

    A: An etymologist knows the difference between an etymologist and an entomologist.

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