cornerstone

[kawr-ner-stohn]
noun
1.
a stone uniting two masonry walls at an intersection.
2.
a stone representing the nominal starting place in the construction of a monumental building, usually carved with the date and laid with appropriate ceremonies.
3.
something that is essential, indispensable, or basic: The cornerstone of democratic government is a free press.
4.
the chief foundation on which something is constructed or developed: The cornerstone of his argument was that all people are created equal.

Origin:
1250–1300; Middle English; see corner, stone

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Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2014.
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World English Dictionary
cornerstone (ˈkɔːnəˌstəʊn)
 
n
1.  a stone at the corner of a wall, uniting two intersecting walls; quoin
2.  a stone placed at the corner of a building during a ceremony to mark the start of construction
3.  a person or thing of prime importance; basis: the cornerstone of the whole argument

Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition
2009 © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
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Etymonline
Word Origin & History

cornerstone
c.1300, from corner + stone. The figurative use is older in English than the literal (late 14c.).
"I endorse without reserve the much abused sentiment of Governor M'Duffie, that "Slavery is the corner-stone of our republican edifice;" while I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson, that "all men are born equal." No society has ever yet existed, and I have already incidentally quoted the highest authority to show that none ever will exist, without a natural variety of classes." [James H. Hammond, "Letter to an English Abolitionist" 1845]
Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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Example sentences
The building has always been considered the cornerstone of our downtown.
Before long, kin selection was a cornerstone of evolutionary biology.
The cornerstone of this conversion is a diesel engine.
Accurate diagnosis is the cornerstone of medical care.
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