What semantic notions underlie "a weighing, a weight" and 'trial, attempt'?

essay (n.)

1590s, "trial, attempt, endeavor," also "short, discursive literary composition" (first attested in writings of Francis Bacon, probably in imitation of Montaigne),
from Middle French essai "trial, attempt, essay" (in Old French from 12c.),
from Late Latin exagium "a weighing, a weight"

from Latin exigere "drive out; require, exact; examine, try, test,"
from ex "out" (see ex-) + agere "to set in motion, drive"
(from PIE root *ag- "to drive, draw out or forth, move") apparently meaning here "to weigh." The suggestion is of unpolished writing. Compare assay, also examine.

  • 1
    You needn't go back to PIE. The Latin meaning "try" as in "I will try to express my arguments" is more than clear, isn't it?
    – user22700
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 19:27
  • @Nico I don't think you addressed 'weighing' though?
    – user1995
    Commented May 19, 2020 at 23:23

1 Answer 1


From another dictionary (Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue française, Bloch & von Wartburg):

essai lat. exagium "pesée" (dér. de exigere, au sens de "peser"), qui est attesté dès le IVe s. au sens de "essai"

To weigh has been used with a figurative meaning (to measure, to test) for a long time, surely because it was one of the few accurate measurements that you had in Antiquity. For example Latin pensare became both French words peser and penser.

  • 1
    [figurative meaning]
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 2, 2020 at 13:40

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