What's in a word?

Here, in case you were wondering, are some of my favorite words:


Mostly because it’s used in my favorite line from Shakespeare (and thus all of literature): “And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” “Quintessence of dust” to describe humanity–the man was a friggin (another favorite word) genius. We’re the very best, most refined dust, but lest we get full of ourselves… we’re still just dust.

But the reasons to love “quintessence” don’t stop there! Oh, no. Quintessence is a Latin word (with Greek roots) that means the fifth (quinta) essence. The fifth essence was an alchemist term that described the mythical “pure essence, substance of which the heavenly bodies are composed.” The other four essences (earth, fire, water, and air) were thought to have been derived from this original essence. Alchemists believed that if they could just refine any material down completely enough they would arrive at the fifth essence, and then be able to create any material they liked from it (i.e. gold). Quintessence’s current meaning, “the most perfect embodiment of something,” is beautifully derived from its alchemical past.

Luc Besson’s move The Fifth Element plays on the word quintessence and this whole alchemical tradition. In that movie it was suggested that the fifth element was love, a proposition I’m amenable to (another favorite word, though perhaps it scores too high on Cam’s pretentious meter). Sadly, however, the film was completely and irredeemably ruined by Chris Tucker… and Bruce’s hairdo.


I like the way it sounds, and it’s also used in my favorite Emily Dickinson poem:

They say that “Time assuages” —
Time never did assuage —
An actual suffering strengthens
As Sinews do, with age —

Time is a Test of Trouble —
But not a Remedy —
If such it prove, it prove too
There was no Malady —

It’s not a very up-beat poem, but it is quintessentially Dickinson (snap!).


A German derived word that means the spirit of the time, literally. “Zeit” means “time,” and “geist” means “spirit” or “ghost.” Though I can’t for the life of me pronounce it properly, how can you not love a word with that kind of literality?


2 thoughts on “What's in a word?

  1. Thanks for sharing these. I especially liked the Quintessence one. The most refined dust -perhaps “spirit” ? Seems science and religion are here compatible….the fifth essence, “pure essence, substance of which heavenly bodies are composed”. Your dust analagy also brought to mind Mosiah 2:25 and therabouts….”lest we get too full of ourselves…”. Good stuff. At the risk of shocking you too much I acutally used “assuage” in a recent letter(before reading your “favorites”). OK, so “zeitgeist” is a favorite……please humor me and use it in a sentence!

  2. A word I’ve come to appreciate in this season of political intensity (also religious intensity re the “Mormon” issue) is obfuscate. To cover, to muddle, to misrepresent. The word isn’t used alot but its meaning definitely is.

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