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  • 1. Possible as opposed to actual; having or showing the capacity to develop into something in the future; latent; prospective.
  • 2. Med. Designating (the use of) a cauterizing agent other than a red-hot implement, esp. a caustic substance; contrasted with actual (cf. CAUTERY n. 1). Chiefly in potential cautery. Now hist.
  • 3. Possessing potency or power; potent, powerful, mighty, strong; commanding. Now rare.
  • 4. Grammar. Designating or relating to a part of a verb used to express possibility. Chiefly in potential mood n. a mood, such as the subjunctive, used to express possibility. Also fig. with humorous play on sense. With reference to French grammar, sometimes applied to the conditional.
  • 5. Physics. Designating a property or attribute that a body possesses by virtue of its position or state, but which is only manifested or released under changed conditions. Chiefly in POTENTIAL ENERGY n. , potential temperature n. at Special uses.
For lessons on the topic of Potentials, follow this link.

Chronologic Sample

  • 1398 J. TREVISA tr. Bartholomaeus Anglicus De Proprietatibus Rerum (BL Add.) f. 307, e potencial hete of hem passe nout in to worchinge and actual hete in dede..potencial light at is in a medled body and derk passe nout to worke in dede but by comynge of outward light. ?
  • 1425 tr. Guy de Chauliac Grande Chirurgie (N.Y. Acad. Med.) f. 162v, Anoer maner of fire is potenciale, which shewe nout sensualy, i. felynly, in e houre or tyme bot after e deduccioun and ledyng of his power to his acte, which is done wi medicynez caustic & ruptyuez.
  • 1429 Mirour Mans Saluacioune (1986) l. 5038 Offring of golde sometyme pertened to gift reale, Whilk offrande shewed thi dere son to be a Kinge potenciale.
  • 1614 W. RALEIGH Hist. World I. I. ix. §3. 182 The seedes and effects..were as yet but potentiall, and in the blowth and budde. 1626 W. PRYNNE Perpetuitie Regenerate Mans Estate 262 This cannot imply an actuall or a potentiall fall from the state of grace.
  • 1657 S. PURCHAS Theatre Flying-insects I. ii. 3 The Worm or Potential Bee.
  • 1730 M. CONCANEN Spectaculist 124 We are unwilling to allow even Potential Merit to People not raised high above us.
  • 1766 W. BLACKSTONE Comm. Laws Eng. II. xvi. 261 When he [sc. a sole corporation] dies or resigns, though there is no actual owner of the land till a successor be appointed, yet there is a legal, potential ownership, subsisting in contemplation of law.
  • 1807 T. YOUNG Course Lect. Nat. Philos. I. vii. 59 The force appears to be what is called in logic a potential cause, which is not in a state of activity.
  • 1897 Westm. Gaz. 10 Mar. 6/2 The ships..put out under steam, running eight or nine throughout the night to avoid potential torpedoes.
  • 1904 J. CONRAD Nostromo III. x. 424 He descended into the gully; for the fascination of all that silver, with its potential power, survived alone outside of himself.
  • 1941 Illustrated 13 Sept. 12/2 Inside six months he has raised, clothed, equipped, and put into training on a voluntary basis a reservoir of 200,000 young men as potential air crews for the R.A.F.
  • 1993 Accountancy Oct. 60/2 Sales Express uses the latest direct mail and automated fax-shot techniques to access potential buyers.