In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros

On Becoming #1

We all like to think that we are something "special." It's a status we think we deserve by meeting or surpassing standards set by another against whom we measure ourselves — Mary Poppins, perhaps? She was, after all, perfect in every way.

We often refer to those who are most special as being a quintessential — athlete, artist, ballplayer, or what have you — "the most transcendent specimen of a particular class, those deemed best at their craft."

The source of their quintessence is the Latin, quintas, "five." It stems from the Ancients' belief that the universe was composed of four elements, earth, air, fire, and water. The fifth element was the ether — the rarest and most pervasive of all, and the substance of the heavenly bodies, which alchemists later tried to extract via distillation — truly something special.

Because something or someone is special, however, doesn't necessarily mean that they are better. John Ciardi, the poet and wordsmith, noted how essence is French for "gasoline," but that the French never marketed their high-test (high-octane) as "quintessence," the implication being that "regular" can serve us just as well.

Many consider the ultimate person of merit to also be an absolute paragon. Theories, however, vary as to what makes him special. Some think it's because he's above the fray from para, "beyond," and agon, "conflict," beyond the melodramatic battles which characterize most of our lives.

Others believe his greatness is simply relative, from the Spanish para con migo, "in comparison with me." Most likely, though, it derives from the Italian paragonare, meaning, "to test on a touchstone" from the Greek para, "on the side," and akone, "whetstone," which is how the Ancients assessed the purity of gold and silver.

People often achieve distinction by the mark they make, i.e. the impression they leave on others. Making your mark as a professional — as a great artist, athlete, or dot–commer, however, doesn't necessarily mean you're up to scratch as a person. Pablo Picasso was a quintessential artist and Ty Cobb, a paragon as a ball player. Both, however, were less than quintessential human beings.