September 2019


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.


Usually I like to pretend to be super clever by using big long words here, which ‘clue’ obviously isn’t. But I’ve picked it because it has really interesting etymology. It actually comes from Greek myth. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. (This is a long one, sorry.)

Minos, king of Crete, was married to Pasiphae. She had sex with a bull (because, Zeus), and gave birth to a hideous beast called the minotaur (I don’t know why it was named after Minos as he didn’t have anything to do with it, but I digress). Minos was a bit embarrassed by this, but decided to put his bovine stepson to work rather than just killing it (again, I don’t know why, as he was a bit of a git – he must have been feeling uncharacteristically charitable that day). So he imprisoned it in a huge labyrinth, then stuck anyone who pissed him off in there. They then couldn’t find a way out and were eventually eaten by the minotaur. Which saved on the Ocado bills.

Cut to Athens, where Minos’ actual son gets killed by the same bull that boffed his mum (what are the chances!). Minos is understandably miffed about this, and demands that Athens send him human sacrifices every year to make up for it. I told you he was a bastard. This goes on for a few years, until an Athenian named Theseus thinks ‘f*ck this, my people shouldn’t be ending up as hors-d’oeuvres for a cow-man’, and decides to kill the minotaur. So he sails to Crete, where he meets another of Minos’ offspring, Ariadne. They fall madly in love, and she gives him a ball of wool (he’s a cheap date). He then heads off into the labyrinth, kills the minotaur and uses the wool to find his way back out. Then he pops Ariadne on his ship and takes her back to Athens where they live happily ever after.* What does this have to do with ‘clue’, I hear you shouting? Well, the old word for a ball of wool was ‘clew’ (sorry it took so long to get there). Because of the way Theseus used it, i.e. as a clue to get him out of the maze, it slowly took on the meaning it has today.

Bonus fact: I’ve used the word maze above, because I didn’t want to write labyrinth again. But in fact they’re different things. A maze has choices of paths and directions, and can have different entrances and exits, and dead ends. A labyrinth only has one single path which leads to the middle, and only one way in and out. And David Bowie lives in one.

Well done for making it to the end BTW.

*Due to a mix up over some sails, Theseus’ dad thought his son had been killed by the minotaur and, in his grief, chucked himself off a cliff. So it wasn’t an entirely happy ending, sorry.

(Like what you just read? Check out the other words of the week. There’s loads.)


Photo by  Austin Neill  on  Unsplash

Yes, yes, smarty pants, I know you know what it means – it’s when a person’s (or animal’s) movement is restricted for a certain amount of time to make sure they don’t pass on any nasty diseases. But it has quite an interesting origin story. Allow me to take you back to the 17th-century. Trading ships are travelling from one country to another, sometimes bringing unwanted cargo like typhoid, cholera and yellow fever alongside their goods. In a bid to stop these spreading, authorities order them to be isolated in port for 40 days before people can come ashore. And that’s where we get the word – ‘quaranta giorni’ which literally means 40 days in Italian.

Why 40 days? No one really knows, is the short answer. And it actually started out as 30 days, and was called, unimaginatively, ‘trentino’. At some point an extra 10 days was added, possibly just as a precaution as people began to understand incubation periods a bit more. Or it might be because the number 40 has lots of Biblical significance – it was the number of days and nights J-Christ spent in the desert, and also the time Moses spent up Mount Sinai doing something very important that I can’t remember (commandments, maybe? You can tell I went to convent school can’t you?).

Interestingly (kinda), lots of us use ‘quarantine’ wrongly. You can only be quarantined if you’re not actually ill i.e. you don’t have a medical diagnosis. If you’re already sick and you have to be kept away from healthy peeps, then you’re in ‘medical isolation’, not quarantine. There’s also a thing called ‘cordon sanitaire’ which is similar, but refers to restricting people’s movement in or out of a specific geographic area to stop an infection from spreading.