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[noun es-ey for 1, 2; es-ey, e-sey for 3–5; verb e-sey] /noun ˈɛs eɪ for 1, 2; ˈɛs eɪ, ɛˈseɪ for 3–5; verb ɛˈseɪ/
a short literary composition on a particular theme or subject, usually in prose and generally analytic, speculative, or interpretative.
anything resembling such a composition:
a picture essay.
an effort to perform or accomplish something; attempt.
Philately. a design for a proposed stamp differing in any way from the design of the stamp as issued.
Obsolete. a tentative effort; trial; assay.
verb (used with object)
to try; attempt.
to put to the test; make trial of.
Origin of essay
1475-85; < Middle French essayer, cognate with Anglo-French assayer to assay < Late Latin exagium a weighing, equivalent to *exag(ere), for Latin exigere to examine, test, literally, to drive out (see exact) + -ium -ium
Related forms
essayer, noun
preessay, verb (used without object)
unessayed, adjective
well-essayed, adjective
Can be confused
assay, essay. Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2015.
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British Dictionary definitions for essay


noun (ˈɛseɪ; for senses 2, 3 also) (ɛˈseɪ)
a short literary composition dealing with a subject analytically or speculatively
an attempt or endeavour; effort
a test or trial
verb (transitive) (ɛˈseɪ)
to attempt or endeavour; try
to test or try out
Word Origin
C15: from Old French essaier to attempt, from essai an attempt, from Late Latin exagium a weighing, from Latin agere to do, compel, influenced by exigere to investigate
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for essay

1590s, "short non-fiction literary composition" (first attested in writings of Francis Bacon, probably in imitation of Montaigne), from Middle French essai "trial, attempt, essay," from Late Latin exagium "a weighing, weight," from Latin exigere "test," from ex- "out" (see ex-) + agere (see act) apparently meaning here "to weigh." The suggestion is of unpolished writing.


"to put to proof, test the mettle of," late 15c., from Middle French essaier, from essai (see essay (n.)). This sense has mostly gone with the divergent spelling assay. Meaning "to attempt" is from 1640s. Related: Essayed; essaying.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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essay in Culture

essay definition

A short piece of writing on one subject, usually presenting the author's own views. Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, and Ralph Waldo Emerson are celebrated for their essays.

The American Heritage® New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition
Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
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