Tertium quid

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Electrum, a rare alloy of gold and silver, was used by Tertullian as an example of a tertium quid, by which he meant a mixture with composite properties.

Tertium quid refers to an unidentified third element that is in combination with two known ones.[1] The phrase is associated with alchemy.[1] It is Latin for "third something" (literally, "third what"), a translation of the Greek triton ti (τρίτον τί).[1] The Greek phrase was used by Plato (360 BC),[2] and by Irenæus (c. AD 196).[3] The earliest Latin example is by Tertullian (c. 220), who used the phrase to describe a mixed substance with composite properties such as electrum, a somewhat different sense than the modern meaning.[4]

In Christology[edit]

In the Christological debates of the fourth century, it was used to refer to the followers of Apollinaris who spoke of Christ as something neither human nor divine, but a mixture of the two, and therefore a "third thing".

In American political history[edit]

In American political history, the Tertium Quids, or Quids, were moderate members of Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party. The word implies that their political position was apt to embrace true republicanism and the comparable conservatism of the Federalist Party, particularly on foreign policy. The Quids arose in 1804 during Thomas Jefferson's first term in office. They were led by Virginia's John Randolph of Roanoke. They stood by the party's original stance for strict construction of the Constitution and opposed Jefferson's pragmatic approach to governing.

In sociology[edit]

In sociology, it describes a category of degraded moral consideration.

In Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois used the term "tertium quid" to refer to the identity of African Americans in a racist society, where non-white people are viewed as a devalued category between man and animal.

"The second thought streaming from the death (slave)-ship and the curving river is the thought of the older South, the sincere and passionate belief that somewhere between men and cattle, God created a tertium quid, and called it a Negro—a clownish, simple creature, at times even lovable within its limitations, but straitly foreordained to walk within the Veil."[5]

In American law[edit]

The term is used in the important Supreme Court case Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Samara Brothers, Inc. 529 U.S. 205 (2000). In this Lanham Act case, the Court, when discussing product packaging vs. product design, referred to the type of trade dress in its earlier Two Pesos decision as "some tertium quid" that may be a mutation of product packaging and product design—a "third thing."

In literature[edit]

In literature, it can describe an adulterer, often in a cuckolded relationship.

Kipling employs the term in "At the Pit’s Mouth," for an adulterer: "Once upon a time there was a Man and his Wife and a Tertium Quid."

Talbot Mundy a contemporary of Kipling makes use of the term in "King of the Khyber Rifles" (p. 265) to describe a cuckold, "And what kind of man must Rewa Gunga be who could lightly let go all the prejudices of the East and submit to what only the West has endured hitherto with any complacency--a "tertium quid"? "

Also, Robert Browning uses the term "Tertium Quid" in his long narrative poem "The Ring and the Book" to describe a speaker with a third point of view who has a different, more balanced, opinion on the 1698 Roman murder case his poem discusses, different from the opinions of "Half Rome" and "The Other Half Rome" who strongly sympathize with, or strongly do not sympathize with, the accused.


  1. ^ a b c "Tertium quid", Online Etymological Dictionary
  2. ^ Grote, George, Plato, and the other companions of Sokrates, Volume 2, p. 418. From the dialogue Sophist: "Existence or reality must therefore be a tertium quid, apart from motion and rest, not the sum total of those two items."
  3. ^ Irenæus, Against Heresies 2.1.3. The surviving text is Latin, but the original would have been in Greek. "But if they say this, there will be a 'tertium quid,' with this immense separation between the Pleroma and what is outside it, and this 'tertium quid' will limit and contain the other two, and will be greater than both the Pleroma and what is outside it, since it contains both in its bosom." (Grant, Robert McQueen, Irenaeus of Lyons, p. 108.)
  4. ^ Tertullian, Adv. Praxean 27. "If, however, it was only a tertium quid, some composite essence formed out of the two substances, like the electrum (which we have mentioned), there would be no distinct proofs apparent of either nature." (That is, of the divine and human natures of Christ.)
  5. ^ Du Bois, W.E.B. 1903. '"Chapter VI: Of the Training of Black Men," in The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Chicago:A.C. McClurg.