I was watching The West Wing (even though I said I wasn’t going to keep watching it) and the president included “plenipotentiary” in his speech when he accepted new foreign ambassadors. Not only did I not know what the word meant, but I had also never heard it before.
To me, it sounds like it should mean “exhibiting great potential.” You are plenipotentiary if you show an abundance of promise.
If you tell people they have a lot of potential, it has a tendency to be meaningless, and with good reason. Potential doesn’t accomplish wonderful things. Potential doesn’t build fantastic careers. Potential doesn’t maintain strong relationships. Potential itself is useless. But if you tell someone they’re plenipotentiary, well, that implies a deeper calling, something rooted in our souls from the moment we were born, a higher power. It’s what urges us on when we maybe don’t feel that potential bubbling over. It’s what spurs us to keep going when we fear we may be faltering. It exists within us and it’s something we can’t escape. Unlike regular potential that has numerous chances over the years to remain dormant, or even to shrivel up and die, if you are plenipotentiary, you have a greater motivation–no, an obligation–to realize that potential for your own benefit, for the good of the country, and for the satisfaction of the universe. Yes, a plenipotentiary human being has no choice but to forge ahead and make something of himself, regardless of the perceived obstacles that stand in his way.
When I looked up the definition, I learned that’s not exactly what plenipotentiary means. It means “invested with full power,” and it’s usually used in relation to diplomats (hence its inclusion in the new ambassador speech). But what else is potential, really, but the opportunity to exhibit one’s full power? So if I happen to tell you you’re plenipotentiary one day and you don’t work in government, just know I’m acknowledging the awesome potential you have, and that I can’t wait to see what you do with your power.