Do you know who you are? Yesterday I faced a metaphysical puzzle — of the nicest kind — whenI was interviewed by my charming namesake Cathy Blythe for KFOR in Lincoln, Nebraska. Resisting the temptation to ask the questions was difficult. Was she talking to me? Or I to me? At least we had the e to separate us.
Metaphysical questions about words and names have been circling me for weeks, since the nice chaps at Wordia.com asked me to talk about the word quintessence. They are devoted to celebrating language, from etymologies to personal definitions, in an on-line video archive. This enterprise is the brainchild of Bebo co-founder, Michael Birch. Since language is constantly evolving, and quarreled over, Wordia is a brilliant forum for capturing meaning on the wing, and pinning it to the fleeting sentiments with which we launch our words at one another. If you have a favourite word and would like to tell the world about it, drop them a line.
Here were my thoughts…
Quintessence is an odd word. Everyone knows what essence means. So that quint part tacked onto the start sounds unnecessary. Ornamental. Pretentious. A little bit camp, a little bit snobby. Indeed one definition of the word quintessence is as a superlative, as a term of praise. If you are the ne plus ultra, the last word in fashion, you might be called the quintessence of fashion. You have IT.
So what is IT? Another sense of the word quintessence is ‘definining characteristic’ — meaning, the essence of your essence. But this is rather like saying ‘your most perfect perfection.’ It is a tautology.
However, originally quintessence meant something quite specific meaning. It referred originally to the fifth element. The first four were air, water, earth and fire; the mysterious quintessence was thought to be the substance of which the heavens and gods were composed. Capture the quintessence and you would have the divine within your grasp. Once upon a time, this elusive quantity was supposed to be latent in every substance. So alchemists did not merely strive to turn lead into gold. They sought also to extract the quintessence from base metals. Hence it was also used as a verb – meaning, to distil or remove the essence from something.
Although fond of this absurd word, I can’t hear it without picturing someone who wears overly complicated clothes, with lots of unnecessary frills and fringes. The type of person who adds several extra vowels to words like Hellooo and Chic. Because pretty as quintessence is, it sounds the essence of pretension. Not to mention illogical, and far too long. If it were up to me, I’d take the essential part and the quint could go hang.