Doesn't "quint" mean "five"? What does that have to do with the meaning of "quintessential"?


7 Answers 7


"Essence" in this context is a synonym for "element", and "essential" for "elemental". In pre-atomic theory, there were four "known" elements or essences — Earth, Air, Fire and Water — and a putative fifth element (quinta essentia). The fifth element was believed to be superior to the others, and so, "quintessential" has come to mean something that is superior.

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    More precisely, the fifth element was believed to be more subtle, permeating the others and the fabric of things and more difficult to find or to isolate. That is why one of the meanings of quintessential is "the most refined part of, the true core of, etc."
    – ogerard
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 18:29
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    Great. Now, whenever I hear that word, it will remind me of that terrible Bruce Willis movie. Ignorance really is bliss... Commented Mar 25, 2015 at 1:08

Somewhat missed in the answers thus far: the "fifth essence" is in fact identical to the "æther" of yore; said to be the stuff the stars and other heavenly bodies are made of. Thus, anything composed of the "fifth essence" had to be exceptional.


It's the fifth element after earth, air, fire, and water, so it is presumably superior to those or completing those.


The origin of the word quint is the late 17th century; it derives from French, which took the word from Latin quintus (fifth) from quinque (five). In Italian, quinto means fifth, and has the same origin.

Quintessential derives from quintessence (from Latin quinta essentia), which was considered thought to fill the Universe beyond Earth. In modern physics, quintessence is a hypothetical form of dark energy.
The NOAD reports that the origin of quintessence is late Middle English (as a term in philosophy), via French from medieval Latin quinta essentia ("fifth essence").

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    Why is the 17th-century origin of a word "quint" relevant, when quintessential has been around since the 16th century?
    – LarsH
    Commented Apr 26, 2011 at 19:55
  • I don't think quint has anything to do with the 17th century.
    – ba_ul
    Commented May 20, 2020 at 2:22

"quint" means fifth. The "quintessence" is the fifth essence.

The fifth element was the one supposed to come after air, fire, earth, and water in the Medieval Age.

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    – Lucius
    Commented Sep 16, 2012 at 20:47

Sorry, I don't agree with the previous answers.

In alchemy, "essence" was the result of the distillation in an alambic (still used for perfumes) ; the process leads to a fairly purified product, but it can't be perfect ; you still have some impurities. Thus, you repeat it again and again. On the fifth time, it was considered that you could not do any better.

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    You will need to back this up, though. Right now this is just a wild guess by a random person off the Internet.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 12:20
  • @Reg: Not entirely. John Lawler supports this view: english.stackexchange.com/questions/109706/… . It's not a common view, nor mine, but it's respectable. Commented Sep 8, 2013 at 22:49

"Essence" means "element". It was believed in the Medieval Age to be the fifth element behind Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.

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