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Reading over an answer at the Skeptics StackExchange, it occurred to me that I had never really seen the adjective abject used with any other word other than poverty. Has abject become inexorably intertwined with that word, or are there other common usages or stock phrases? Also, does the word have a more subtle meaning or connotation other than an intensifier that might be summarized as "utterly"?

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Just throwing in a link to our question about stormy petrels. –  RegDwigнt Apr 20 '11 at 11:04
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and "abject horror" –  JoseK Apr 20 '11 at 12:20
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"Look at Chicolini...He sits there alone...An abject figure." "I abject!" –  mmyers Apr 20 '11 at 12:26
    
I just realised I use it a lot with "...stupidity." –  detly Apr 21 '11 at 2:48
    
I recall once hearing a radio sportscaster congratulate a couple on "80 years of abject marital bliss". I would not hold this up as an example of good usage. –  Curtis H. Mar 21 at 20:41

3 Answers 3

Yes an abject person or an abject character.

abject means in reality "despicable".

The etymology is from Latin (abjĭcĕre: to throw away): something you want to throw away from you (repulsive, disgusting). It's the same -ject as in subject or "alea jacta est"

The sense has somewhat intensified to convey a sense of strong disgust, which is probably why it is sometimes understood as an intensifier ("utter" or "very").

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You'll find that "abject coward" and "abject failure" are also common. There is a class of words that share this property of only arising in certain limited constructions. When they grow up, they become cliches.

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Also: abject misery, abject apology, abject lesson... Just pointing out that there are a lot of these things. –  kitukwfyer Apr 20 '11 at 12:21
    
Indeed - excellent examples. –  The Raven Apr 20 '11 at 13:16
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@kitukwfyer: er, no. "abject lesson" makes no sense. You mean "object lesson". –  Daniel Roseman Apr 20 '11 at 16:08
    
Good spot and point taken (+1 given, too). –  The Raven Apr 20 '11 at 17:51
    
@Daniel D'Oh! That's what I get for waking up early like a "healthy" person. -_- Thanks for catching that! –  kitukwfyer Apr 20 '11 at 18:55
up vote 43 down vote accepted

It just occurred to me that I know how to find this out for myself; it took a little learning of syntax, but I borrowed from nohat's bag of tricks and searched the COCA for [abject].[j*] [n*], and these are the top 10 results it gave:

ABJECT POVERTY      107  
ABJECT FAILURE       53  
ABJECT TERROR        25  
ABJECT FEAR          18  
ABJECT SURRENDER     11  
ABJECT MISERY         7  
ABJECT DEFEAT         7  
ABJECT DESPAIR        7  
ABJECT APOLOGY        7  
ABJECT APOLOGIES      5  

As I remembered, abject poverty did massively top the list of these abject constructions; The Raven's abject failure follows closely after it. But their dominance isn't as overwhelming as I would have thought.

Just for kicks, here is the Google N-gram usage data for those top 10:

Abject adjective collocatives

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+1 for the graph –  Peter Olson Apr 20 '11 at 14:30
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+1 for my "bag of tricks" –  nohat Apr 20 '11 at 16:19
    
THe New Oxford American Dictionary also has "abject sinner" as an example. –  Daniel T. Apr 20 '11 at 19:15
    
The extreme downward trend of "abject terror" is interesting...why? –  Ben Crowell Feb 10 at 4:26

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