Francis Bacon introduced the essay as a literary genre into the English language. Neither the concept nor the coinage were Bacon’s, however, but were borrowed from French moralist Michel de Montaigne (1533-92). In 1571, after an early career in government, Montaigne retired to his family estate where he devoted himself to writing. The result of his labour was three volumes of compositions in which he used his own circumstances, thoughts, feelings and emotions as a vehicle for exploring a wide variety of subjects. He called these personal literary ramblings EssAis.The French word essai meant ‘an attempt, an effort*. Montaigne’s use of the term indicated that he was simply making an unpolished attempt to capture his thoughts on paper.
The origins of French essai can be traced back to the Latin word exigere. This verb meant ‘to weigh*, and hence ‘to examine, to test’, and it influenced the formation of the Late Latin noun exagium, ‘a weighing, a trial, an examination*. Old French borrowed exagium as assai and the variant essai to mean ‘a test or trial of someone or something and hence ‘an attempt (to prove oneself)’. English adopted assay in the fourteenth century, eschewing essay until the late sixteenth century when essai had begun to prevail in French. In English, too, essay became the established form (although, unlike French, English retained assay when referring to the ‘qualitative analysis of a precious metal).While essay to denote ‘an endeavour* has a rather formal ring in modern English, thanks to Montaigne and Bacon the word now also describes an established literary genre and, on a less august level, commonly trips off the tongue of schoolchildren and students who attempt to express their thoughts with pen and paper in academic compositions