While quintessential means 'representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class' [OED], it defines essential as 'absolutely necessary; extremely important'. I have noticed frequent instances of the two being used interchangeably. How did this come about?

  • 2
    Essential has more than one sense; if you read all the OED definitions it may be clearer. Mar 27, 2013 at 22:28
  • Where do you see these being used interchangeably? They have quite different menaings.
    – Ben Lee
    Mar 29, 2013 at 21:51

4 Answers 4


Different borrowings, and different metaphors.

Essence is from Latin essentia 'essence, being'.
It's a present active participle of the Latin verb sum, esse, fūī, futūrus 'to be'.
Just for comparison, being is the present active participle of the English verb be, was, been.

Quintessence comes from Mediaeval alchemical Latin, for quinta essentia 'fifth essence', meaning a potion that had been distilled five times. So it probably means being that's a hundred proof or more; i.e, it's an intensifier, like very. But since essence is so immaterial, there's no real difference between the meanings. Quintessence is a learned word, but that may or may not matter.

  • OED shares the common view of the etymology; "a fifth essence existing in addition to the four elements, supposed to be the substance of which the celestial bodies were composed" and hence more vital and real than the sublunary elements. But I don't suppose it matters. Mar 27, 2013 at 22:18
  • @TimLymington Why is 'proof' singular in a hundred proof or more? Ought it NOT to be a hundred proofS ?
    – user50720
    May 27, 2015 at 20:05
  • Like "percent", it is often used as a mass noun. May 27, 2015 at 20:39
  • 1
    @LawArea51Proposal-Commit: No, proof is not the unit but the description of the scale. It would be incorrect to say "It's a hundred Fahrenheits out there". May 27, 2015 at 21:19
  • @TimLymington Thanks. By 'scale', do you mean that for alcohol: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcohol_proof?
    – user50720
    Jul 1, 2015 at 4:50

I don't think they are even near to one another and even if someone comes across their cross reference it's should be considered a mistake.

All one can correlate between the two words is :-

  • essential > essence of something (necessary for supporting the basics/a survival support )

  • quintessential > essence of a thing in the purest form (for comfort/luxury/showoff etc.)

Note: Though quintessential has it roots in medival latin which points towards aether [the classic element also known as fifth element(after earth, fire, water, and air)] but to the end that too points towards achieving the purest essence, of one which heavenly bodies are composed.[reference link]

Also through the course of language and literature its meaning has kept on evolving following to current definitions along with their usage examples.

Macmillan: a feature of something that contains all of its main qualities a, person or thing that is a perfect example of something Oxford: representing the most perfect or typical example of a quality or class Oxford advance learning dictionary: the perfect example of something the most important features of something Collins: in such a way as to be most typically representative of a quality, state, etc; perfectly Cambridge dictionary: being the most typical example or most important part of something Merriam webster: constituting, serving as, or worthy of being a pattern to be imitated

To further narrow down the ambiguity here is a brief article on etymology of the same.

  • 8
    Exactly. An essential chocolate cake is one you can't get by without, even if other chocolate cakes are actually better. A quintessential chocolate cake is a perfect example of a chocolate cake, but not necessarily important or needed. Mar 27, 2013 at 21:17
  • Since quintessence is merely 'the fifth essence', the connection is obvious. 'The essential difference' between two definitions does not mean it is necessary, but that it is a difference in their very substance, and could easily be replaced by the quintessential difference. Mar 27, 2013 at 22:13
  • @Timlymington, ??. Sorry, Is it that both are replacable? Isn't using them otherwise a mistake?
    – Raghav
    Mar 27, 2013 at 22:20
  • 1
    Don't entirely follow your comment, but no, using essential to mean 'of the very essence' is no more wrong than meaning 'necessary'; the senses are distinct but related. (probably would have been less confusing if I had said things rather than definitions; apologies for mistimed attempt at cleverness.) Mar 27, 2013 at 22:25
  • 1
    @Kate: Well-stated. That was a quintessential explanation.
    – J.R.
    Mar 27, 2013 at 23:16

I researched this question in hopes to find an easy answer, but I came away more puzzled than when I started.

Here are the synonyms of essential suggested by my computer's on-board thesaurus (sure enough, there is quintessential, listed among the candidates), followed by the definitions provided by its dictionary:

thesaurus/dictionary screen shots There are two oddities, at least in my mind. First, I can't find anything in the meaning of essential that carries the essence of quintessential; second, when I looked up the other synonyms for essential in the thesaurus (i.e., when I looked up basic, inherent, fundamental, intrinsic, underlying, etc.), they all listed essential as a synonym in the reverse direction. As can be seen by the bottom part of my screenshot, though, essential is conspicuously missing from the listed synonyms of quintessential.

This leads me to believe that using quintessential in place of essential would be a mistake, as Raghav said in an answer, and Kate Gregory mentioned in a comment. Yet it's not too often that such a "mistake" would be supported by a thesaurus.

I even looked up essential and essentially in the OED, as Tim Lymington suggested, and still couldn't find any clear-cut link.

Since I was unable to find a satisfactory answer to your question, I feel compelled to upvote it; it is a quintessential etymological puzzler.

  • The second sense given here for 'essential' largely overlaps with the meaning of 'quintessential'; the first sense (imperative / crucial) does not. Any overlap makes the words synonyms. May 27, 2015 at 21:55

Ritika, Have a look at this: NGram suggesting that we don't see the words crossing each other, hence I would suggest they have not yet been replaced as yet. Besides in short, essential means indispensable, while quintessential means the most typical. And Thesaurus.com does point out quintessential as a synonym of essential, supporting what you mentioned in your original post, but I guess its like saying I always procrastinate my work then saying I always delay my work until the end.
See an example here.
And both words have a different (and interesting) origin.

  1. quintessential: derived from quintessence meaning the pure and concentrated essence of a substance. It has its story that Aristotle proposed this when he wanted to name the fifth element as quint + essence.
  2. essential: having its origin from essence meaning: the basic, real, and invariable nature of a thing or its significant individual feature or features: Freedom is the very essence of our democracy.
  • 3
    How does this Ngram show that the words aren't interchangable? Interchangable implies synonymous; the Ngram only tracks frequency. All this shows is that one word is less common than the other, but that can be said for interchangable words, too.
    – J.R.
    Mar 27, 2013 at 23:19
  • yup. just realized what i wrote! updated it thanks
    – camelbrush
    Mar 28, 2013 at 1:19
  • 2
    "Been replaced?" Essentially, your Ngram shows that essential (along with its adverbial form) are more common words than quintessential and quintessentially, and also that the word essentially grew in usage from around 1700 until its peak in the latter half of the 20th century. Nothing more.
    – J.R.
    Mar 28, 2013 at 8:19

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