You know what it means: something which represents a typical or perfect example of something. But do you know where it comes from? Yes? Well, you can look smug and stop reading. No? Strap in, you’re in for a fun ride. No, seriously, stay with me – it actually has a surprisingly mystical back story.
You might have already worked out that the ‘quint’ refers to five (as in quintet, quintuplets, and so on, but not the guy from Jaws). But what does that have to do with being perfect? Well, the ‘essential’ bit comes from ‘essentia’ which means essence. So ‘quintessential’ actually means the ‘fifth essence’. Still none the wiser? Me neither. We need to go all the way back to ancient Greece for this, so run and get your toga. All set? Let’s go.
Aristotle, the head honcho of western philosophy, introduced the idea of a fifth element (nope, not the Bruce Willis film), to the existing four (i.e. 70s disco group earth, wind and fire, plus water). The fifth one was an airy-fairy thing that made up the heavenly and divine bodies, also called ‘aether’.
According to the A-man, a little tiny bit of this perfect, god-like substance was supposed to exist in all things (including us human beans). So that’s why the word’s since come to mean the most refined version of something.