from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition.

  • noun A short literary composition on a single subject, usually presenting the personal view of the author.
  • noun Something resembling such a composition.
  • noun A testing or trial of the value or nature of a thing.
  • noun An initial attempt or endeavor, especially a tentative attempt.
  • transitive verb To make an attempt at; try.
  • transitive verb To subject to a test.

from The Century Dictionary.

  • noun A trial, attempt, or endeavor; an effort made; exertion of body or mind to perform or accomplish anything: as, an essay toward reform; an essay of strength.
  • noun An experimental trial; a test.
  • noun An assay or test of the qualities of a metal. See assay, n.
  • noun In lit., a discursive composition concerned with a particular subject, usually shorter and less methodical and finished than a treatise; a short disquisition: as, an essay on the life and writings of Homer; an essay on fossils; an essay on commerce.
  • noun Synonyms Struggle.
  • noun Treatise, dissertation, disquisition, paper, tract, tractate. See definition of treatise.
  • To make trial of; attempt; exert one's power or faculties upon; put to the test: as, to essay a difficult feat; to essay the courage of a braggart.
  • To try and test the value and purity of, as metals. Now written assay (which see).
  • Synonyms Undertake, Endeavor, etc. See attempt.

from the GNU version of the Collaborative International Dictionary of English.

  • transitive verb To exert one's power or faculties upon; to make an effort to perform; to attempt; to endeavor; to make experiment or trial of; to try.
  • transitive verb obsolete To test the value and purity of (metals); to assay. See Assay.
  • noun An effort made, or exertion of body or mind, for the performance of anything; a trial; attempt.
  • noun (Lit.) A composition treating of any particular subject; -- usually shorter and less methodical than a formal, finished treatise
  • noun obsolete An assay. See Assay, n.

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License.

  • noun A written composition of moderate length exploring a particular issue or subject.
  • noun obsolete A test, experiment; an assay.
  • noun An attempt.
  • verb dated, transitive To try.
  • verb intransitive To move forth, as into battle.

from WordNet 3.0 Copyright 2006 by Princeton University. All rights reserved.

  • noun an analytic or interpretive literary composition
  • noun a tentative attempt
  • verb put to the test, as for its quality, or give experimental use to
  • verb make an effort or attempt


from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition

[French essai, trial, attempt, from Old French, from essayer, to attempt, from Vulgar Latin *exagiāre, to weigh out, from Late Latin exagium, a weighing : Latin ex-, ex- + Latin agere, to drive; see ag- in Indo-European roots. V., from Middle English assaien, from Old French assaer, assaier, variant of essayer.]

from Wiktionary, Creative Commons Attribution/Share-Alike License

From Middle French essai.


Help support Wordnik (and make this page ad-free) by adopting the word essay.



Log in or sign up to get involved in the conversation. It's quick and easy.

  • In stamp collecting, this term refers to the artwork of a proposed design for a postage stamp. Some essays are rendered photographically; others are drawn or painted. One design is chosen out of many submissions to become the essay for the accepted design.

    August 25, 2008

  • Sounds like the letters S A.

    October 28, 2009