Originally, quintessential meant having to do with the fifth essence which is the fifth stage in the refining process. It also refers to a fifth element beyond the four elements we’re already all so familiar with – earth, wind, fire, and air. Some say that it relates to a fifth sphere that’s located outside of the Earth, somewhere in the old geocentric heaven model.
This is a sphere that’s meant to be perfect since it’s located so far away from the dirt and drudge that’s so commonly found on the Earth itself In any of these cases, there’s one thing they all have in common and that’s this: something that’s quintessential is something that’s to be perfect.
How To Use “Quintessential” In A Sentence
We use “Quintessential” as an adjective (a word or phrase that modifies a noun – a person, place, or thing) that means something is the “perfect example.” Some have used the word to mean “typical” though. In either case, since it’s an adjective it requires a noun to modify.
This noun can be either abstract or general. However, since it modifies a noun it’s important for the verb to be a form of “to be.” Sometimes the word quintessential can be used as a verb, “quintessentially.”
Examples Of The Correct Usage Of The Word “Quintessential”
When you want to use the word quintessential as an adjective, it’s important that you do so correctly. To help you with this, here are some examples of how to correctly use the word quintessential in a sentence:
- Everyone thinks of him as the quintessential Californian.
- If you want to make the quintessential Corsican meal, roast some garlic with sheep’s milk.
- She was the quintessential Barbie girl.
- In my opinion, the quintessential American musical was Grease.
- An example of the quintessential big city is New York.
- A tall, dark, handsome man who looks great in a suit is the quintessential hero.
- The quintessential pastime of rich and famous women is a day at the spa.
- The quintessential heavy metal guitarist is one who wears black clothes and has lots of tattoos.
- On a hot summer day the quintessential fruit to eat is watermelon.
- The telegraph was the quintessential means of message delivery prior to the invention of the modern telephone.
Etymology Of The Word “Quintessential”
Quint is a word that dates back to the seventeenth century, late Middle English where it was used as a philosophical term used to describe a fifth element (coming after earth, wind, fire, and air). It’s derived from the French language, but originally it comes from the medieval Latin word quinta (quintus meaning fifth; quinque meaning 5) essentia. Here the word meant “fifth essence.” The word is also found in the Italian language (quinto meaning fifth) with the same origins.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, quinta essentia was translated quintessence. Later, the word quintessential was derived from this word. It was originally used to describe something that filled the universe beyond the Earth. Today, the word is still being used in modern physics where it’s used to describe a hypothetical form of dark energy..
Defining The Word “Quintessential”
Something is said to be quintessential when it typifies a perfect experience. This word can also be used to describe someone who’s the perfect example of something (e.g. a salesperson, an athlete). However, the word consummate (adjective meaning complete or perfect) may be a better word to use in this context.
There are several acceptable definitions of the word quintessential today. The main definition of the word is someone that’s representative (perfectly typical) of a certain type of thing or person (e.g. the quintessential New Yorker, the quintessential Italian restaurant). However, there’s also the term that means being a quintessence.
The other acceptable definition for the word quintessential has to do with elements. Herein it’s used to describe something that’s a typical part or a pure example. Oftentimes, when it’s used in this fashion the plural of the word (quintessentials) is used. Here is an example of how this would be used in a sentence: The quintessentials – mustard, catsup, brown sugar, and vinegar – characterize the typical American BBQ sauce.
Proper Use Of The Word “Quintessential” In A Sentence
There are several dictionaries (e.g. MacMillan, Cambridge, Collins) that indicate that quintessential means “representing the best example of a class.” Now that we understand this word’s meaning, you may be wondering if you could simply say that something is the “quintessential example.” When used in this fashion, calling something a quintessential example is much the same as saying something is the most exemplary example. From a pedantic point of view, this is a bit redundant. However, if you aren’t concerned about adhering to strict grammatical rules, you can use the word in this way and most people will understand exactly what you’re trying to say.
Another way in which the word is used, that’s highly debatable, has to do with referring to elementary particles. Many will tell you that there’s no need to use the word quintessential if you’re talking about a concept that’s well-defined, factual and concrete. In other words, when a class has specific traits that are associated with it then you should mention its best exemplar as that would be the quintessential member of its class. Of course, if the class doesn’t have a variable “essence,” then the word quintessential wouldn’t be applicable here anyway. If you talk to any scientist you’ll learn that membership in the “elementary particle” class is binary. This means that either something is or is not a member of the class. In other words, there’s nothing variable about whether something is an elementary particle.
Mistaking The Word “Quintessential” For The Word Essential
A word that quintessential commonly gets mistaken for is the word essential. Oftentimes these two words are used almost interchangeably. Unfortunately, they aren’t even close to one another in terms of how they’re defined. This is why you should consider it a grammatical error when you see this happen.
As far as a correlation between the two words, this is all there is:
- Essential: The essence of something; something that’s necessary to support its basic survival
- Quintessential: The essence of something in its purest form (e.g. comfort, luxury)
When you look at these two words in this way you won’t be able to find anything in the word essential that carries the essence of the word quintessential. Furthermore, when you look up the synonyms for the word essential (e.g. basic, underlying, inherent, intrinsic, fundamental) you’ll see that the word essential is listed as a synonym in the reverse direction. However, when you look up the synonyms for the word quintessential you find that the word essential isn’t listed.
When you take time to consider this for a moment, you’ll see that using the word quintessential in place of the word essential is also a mistake. Even when you take some time to look up the words essential and its adverb (a word that modifies an adjective, verb, or adverb) essentially in the Oxford English Dictionary you won’t be able to find a clear-cut link between the word essential and the word quintessential. Of course, it is also possible that neither dictionary has replaced the words as of yet.
Another way of looking at this is by looking at the definitions of the two words again:
- Essential: Indispensable
- Quintessential: Most typical
Here you can see how they could be used as synonyms for each other. This is something that is supported by Thesaurus.com. However, it’s still important to note that both of these words do have very different and interesting origins. The word quintessential is derived from the word quintessence which is used in referring to a substance’s pure, concentrated essence. Some say that this dates back to when the Greek philosopher, Aristotle wanted to name the fifth element quint essence. On the other hand, the word essential has its meaning in the word essence, which means a thing’s basic, real, invariable nature. The word essence also refers to something’s significant individual features.
Using Synonyms And Antonyms For The Word “Quintessential”
There are a few synonyms that can be used in place of the word quintessential. These include:
There are even more antonyms than there are synonyms for this word. These antonyms include the words:
Regardless of how quintessential got its definition, it means that something is the perfect example. While this is the quintessential example of an old word, it’s one that’s still in use today. Don’t be afraid to use it the next time it seems fitting to do so.