I am aware of the etymological fallacy and aware that the fallacy itself, also, does not always hold good. In other words, a word's pedigree may, or may not, be the reason it means what it means, today.

The OED tells me, in the small print, that, beyond the immediate Anglo Norman substans lies the Old French sustance and beyond that lies the Latin substare, literally sub-stare 'to stand' or to 'stand under'.

Interestingly, there is a concomitant word in Hellenistic Greek 'υποστασις, hupostasis which, literally, is as the Latin, and can be rendered 'under-upstanding'.

The Latin word substantia was adopted (Vulgate etc) to translate both 'υποστασις, hupostatis and also ουσια, ousia.

Now these two Greek words mean, respectively, immaterial presence and material presence. That is to say, the non-physical aspect and the physical aspect of that which is.

Thus the Latin word substantia - and then the English word 'substance' - came to have twin meanings, originally - it would seem - from the Greek.

'Substance' in the OED is defined as the 'nature' or the 'essence' of something.

My question is - has there been an etymological fault in the development of the word ? Is it actually wrong, conceptually, to use a word which means 'underneath that which stands' to convey both meanings of 'physical material' and 'non-physical being' ?

And has this caused confusion, historically, in the conveying of metaphysical concept ? That is to say, has the concept of 'physical material' been carried over into the understanding of that which is not 'physical material' ?

'Essence' or 'subsistence' conveys absolute being. 'Substance' conveys that which is substantive, that which is materially present.

Should they not have been kept separate ?

And is this word 'substance', therefore, an example of an etymological fallacy ?

  • 3
    The etymological fallacy is the belief/dogma that 'the original sense of a word must inform its present-day meaning'. It is a universal truth. It says nothing about whether semantic shifts have or have not happened in individual cases (ie it does not demand that the original sense of a particular word can never inform its present-day meaning). / This is fundamentally a good question (though 'Should they not have been kept separate?' is academic. We have what we have.) It involves the st. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I'm not sure whether it might not be more appropriate on Philosophy SE Jul 8, 2018 at 10:02
  • I forget who first said 'All words are infinitely polysemous [even "formaldehyde"]'. But as in English studies, words dealing with philosophical entities (?) are variously defined by different authorities, and often understood differently. I remember that the Greeks considered the nature of man to be tripartite, while the Jews held an essentially bipartite view. This means that 'soul' say is going to be perceived differently. One needs to understand what the original users understood by a [previous] term, not just the comparison (eg 'stand under') being put forward, which others might reject. Jul 8, 2018 at 10:12
  • @EdwinAshworth Thank you. I am intrigued about the Sapir-Whorf reference. My own thought in this particular case is that language has been manipulated by the culture prevalent in England. That is to say, the concepts of 'essence' and 'substance' have been deliberately blurred by manipulation of the language. –
    – Nigel J
    Jul 8, 2018 at 10:24
  • Are you suggesting a deliberate attempt to manipulate beliefs / ideologies? This becomes a very difficult area to explore. While you may well be right (if you are suggesting this), people understandably grab hold of existing words and possible analogies to try to explain concepts they are struggling to explain (first to themselves). For instance, with the Athenasian Creed, I think I can handle 'without confounding the persons' (probably wrongly), but 'nor dividing the substance' demands I know what exactly is meant by 'substance' here. I don't; using 'the nature / essence' merely ... Jul 8, 2018 at 10:36
  • substitutes replacement terms I can't really comprehend in this context. Jul 8, 2018 at 10:36

1 Answer 1


There doesn’t appear to have been any confusion in the historical development of the term according to the following Etymonline information. The Greek root meant “essence or nature of anything” and Latin substantia refers also to “stand firm, be present”:

  • c. 1300, "essential nature, real or essential part," from Old French sustance, substance "goods, possessions; nature, composition" (12c.), from Latin substantia "being, essence, material," from substans, present participle of substare "stand firm, stand or be under, be present," from sub "up to, under" (see sub-) + stare "to stand," from PIE root *sta- "to stand, make or be firm."

  • Latin substantia translates Greek ousia "that which is one's own, one's substance or property; the being, essence, or nature of anything." Meaning "any kind of corporeal matter" is first attested mid-14c. Sense of "the matter of a study, discourse, etc." first recorded late 14c.


Substance :

Any material that possesses physical properties is called a substance. The word also refers to the gist or main idea of something. If you remember the main point of a lesson, you've got the substance.


  • The meaning of the noun substance has evolved over time, yet it has always been related to something sound and solid — from the Latin root substare, which means "to stand firm," to the Middle English definition as an "essential nature." Nowadays, we use the word to define someone who possesses honesty and intelligence, or when we examine a message to find its essence. To be thought of as a "person of substance" is a good thing, but to be thought of as a "substance abuser" is not so good.


  • Yes, your reference points out that substantia translates ousia. But the Greek word ousia does not refer to the being of a person. 'Substance and property' are not the same as the metaphysical being. Nor is the 'nature' of a person the same as the being of a person.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 8, 2018 at 10:29
  • +1 for the edited version, which is helpful.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 8, 2018 at 11:01
  • @NigelJ - My view is Greek ousia is grammatically the same as being in English, and Latin lacks this form, forcing a different word such as essence or substance and so causing confusion in philosophy and theology, particularly as since the 4th century Christianity has believed God the Father and God the Son are the same ousia. The alternative is to follow Humpty Dumpty whose words mean what he chooses them to mean.
    – Henry
    Mar 4, 2022 at 15:20
  • @Henry I disagree. The alternative (which I personally follow) is to put in the time and the effort to examine - meticulously - what the apostles wrote. And, thus, to arrive at conclusions. Regards.
    – Nigel J
    Mar 4, 2022 at 16:20

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