Recently I read something or other which featured the word quintessential, and was struck by that prefix. Quint-, as in five. The word doesn’t seem to have an obvious link to the number, so I went looking for more information.

And it turns out that there is indeed a link. The word quintessence literally means fifth essence or element. It came into use early in the 15th century in philosophy circles. It was a new term for a very old concept. It referred to Aristotle’s concept of ether, a substance which he added to the existing four elements (earth, air, fire, water) that he believed permeated all matter. In medieval times it was believed to be the element that heavenly bodies were made of, and one of the main goals of alchemy was its extraction. By the end of the 16th century, it had come to be commonly used to refer to something’s purest essence, pretty much as it’s used now, to refer to an ideal version or example of something.

With regard to the word ether, even though Aristotle’s definition has long been discredited,  the word has lingered on. We can still say something’s out there in ether if it’s publicly known and spread, which comes from its use to refer to the radio in the medium’s early days . By the 14th century, it had come to refer to a purer higher form of air, a fifth element. Even into the 20th century the term was still used in scientific circles to refer to a hypothetical framework for the major forces in the universe, until the Theory of Relativity put paid to that idea. But it’s managed to survive, as the name was bestowed upon a group of elements known for their lightness and lack of colour.

I wonder why we’re so attached to the word ether. Even though most of us know it doesn’t exist, maybe we like to keep the word around because it makes the universe seem smaller and less connected. A big, mostly empty universe is a scary thing for a lot of people, so the idea of some substance joining everything together is appealing. Of course the next time the universe feels vast and indifferent, you could just put on The Fifth Element, and bask in the quintessential 90’s sci-fi adventure.

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