- Having a brief duration or lifespan
- Only living or existing for one day
One of the most interesting things about pop culture is the way that it is constantly growing and changing to embrace new tastes. And with the help of the Internet to both track and set the latest trends, mainstream culture moves even faster than ever. But as influential as pop culture is for its power to hold our collective attention, few of its fads last long. This ephemeral nature is the reason why popular culture manages to bring us together: we're all watching to see where it goes next.
The word ephemeral describes something as only lasting for a short period of time. While it can be used to characterize anything whose duration is brief, ephemeral is most often used in conjunction with things that are more abstract or conceptual in nature, like how long one feels a certain emotion or the amount of time your favorite food truck was parked a block away from your office. The amount of time that constitutes an ephemeral span depends on what is a common range for that thing, making it highly relative. For instance, an ephemeral bout of unseasonably warm weather might be a couple of days, while an ephemeral life of a star could be a few million years. Perhaps at a certain scale everything is ephemeral.
In biology, ephemeral takes on the more technical significance of only living for a single day. There is a whole array of lifeforms from across the animal and plant kingdoms whose species' life expectancy is just 24 hours, but most are small creatures such as insects or microscopic organisms. The term can still be applied to living things in a more poetic sense, denoting a lifespan of more than one day - a person's life can be ephemeral, meaning not only that it was shorter than expected, but also left a relatively small impact on those around him. In either sense, the context, whether casual, literary, scientific or philosophical, will usually give enough cues as to how long (or, rather, short) an ephemeral length is.
Example: Her parents forbade her from getting a tattoo for fear that her interest, unlike the tattoo, would be ephemeral, and that she would later regret it.
Example: Ephemeral lifeforms are remarkable for the fact that they can perpetuate their species despite having such a short time on Earth.
The sense of ephemeral meaning a one-day lifespan first emerged in English in the mid-16th century, with the broader meaning of brief duration following in the early 17th century. The word derives from the New Latin ephemerus and, before that, from the Greek word ephemeros, which meant "lasting one day." This word is constructed from the combination of the prefix epi-, meaning "on," and hemera, meaning "day."
Ephemeron: Though this is also a noun, it does not describe the quality of briefness, but a thing that has a short existence.
Example: The League of Nations made for a sad ephemeron in the history of international relations.
Ephemera: This noun is the plural of ephemeron.
Example: Halloween costume stores are some of fall's seasonal ephemera.
Ephemerality: This noun describes the quality of enduring for a very brief time.
Example: The fact that he had absolutely no media presence a week after dropping out of the election spoke to the ephemerality of his campaign.
Ephemerally: The adverb form of ephemeral illustrates when something is done in a way that begets a short existence or effect.
Example: The key to the food truck's success was that it appeared ephemerally around the city, making its fans guess where it would show up next.
From Ptolemy's Almagest:
I know that I am mortal by nature, and ephemeral; but when I trace at my pleasure the windings to and fro of the heavenly bodies I no longer touch the earth with my feet: I stand in the presence of Zeus himself and take my fill of ambrosia.
In referring to his own life, Ptolemy sees it as fleeting and momentary, or ephemeral, when compared to the stars. On the other hand, when he devotes himself to exploring the stars, he can feel the vastness and beauty of the universe.
- To efface something makes it ephemeral.
- Ephemeral things don't have a lasting effect.
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of ephemeral. Did you use ephemeral in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.