Verb > Distill

Verb > Distill

Sometimes the Oxford English Dictionary gets poetic. It defines our word distill as “to extract the quintessence of.”

I love that: when you’re distilling something, you’re drawing out its quintessence: the parts of it that are purest, most perfect, and most essential, drop by drop.

Speaking of doing things drop by drop, see if you can recall a word closely related to distill that literally means “to drop in” but figuratively means “to put into the mind or heart little by little, again and again for a long time.” It’s __still.

Our word “distill” has Latin roots that literally mean “to drip apart, or to drop apart.” It’s been around in English for hundreds of years and has taken on many meanings. Here are the ones we most commonly use today:

To distill a substance is to make it more pure, or make it more concentrated, by heating it up into a vapor, then letting it cool into a liquid. It’s something you might do to water, or to wine or other alcoholic drinks.

So, figuratively speaking, to distill something is to squeeze it down into its purest, most concentrated form.

Part of speech:

Verb, the transitive kind: “They distilled the entire book into a single tagline.”

Other forms:

Distilled, distilling, distillation.

(There are lots more forms related to literal distillation of beverages, but we won’t worry about those.)

how to use it:
Often, we’re literal: we talk about distilling gin, beer, vinegar, etc.

But let’s focus on the figurative. When the phrases “boil it down” or “sum it up” are too casual, we can pick the graceful, serious word “distill.”

We distill a long, complex thing into something short or simple:

—“Journalists distill complex events into brief headlines.”
—“He distilled his philosophy of life into two words: ‘Be kind.'”
—“When George Orwell distilled his chilling vision of totalitarianism into a single image, he imagined this: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever'” (Washington Post).

Although we usually follow that same pattern–distill this into that”–you can tweak the phrasing a bit. You might talk about distilling something to or down to something. Here’s the New York Times: “Backyard camping is camping distilled to its essence. It’s about the novelty of sleeping outside, the being together, the fire.”

Or, talk about distilling something from something. Here’s Scientific American: “Human programmers… must first distill rules from theories and observations.”

And sometimes, you simply talk about distilling something: “I let these comedians distill the week’s news for me.”

“[Bishop Bruce Edward Davis] distilled the Bible into simple lessons.”
— Contributors, paraphrasing Davis’s wife Gwendolyn, The Guardian, 2 June 2020

“Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II composed a stunning up-tempo duet for Anna and the King of Siam that distilled the musical’s romance down to a dizzying ballroom polka.”
— Peter Marks, Washington Post, 7 May 2020