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It seems as if both words mean to humiliate and degrade?

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

To abase is to behave in a way so as to belittle or degrade someone.

To abash is to cause someone to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

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So if you abase someone, you're belittling them, but they might not feel embarrassed. But if you abash someone, you're doing something to make them feel embarrassed? – wrongusername Jan 5 '11 at 0:59
@wrongusername - No, that's not quite right: abase is something people do to others, while abash is something that people feel about themselves. – Dori Jan 5 '11 at 1:10
@Robusto - I couldn't find any examples that use it in that fashion—can you? At a minimum, the OP should understand that that particular usage is uncommon at best, and very likely to confuse readers/listeners. – Dori Jan 5 '11 at 1:20
@Robusto - the example there is felt abashed at the extravagant praise - again, that's how someone feels about themselves. I'm not talking about synonyms here, just the word itself and its usage. I've found no examples that use it as "to abash someone else." Here's a useful article on this. – Dori Jan 5 '11 at 1:37
@Robusto - but no examples, right? As I said, I haven't been able to find a solid example of it being used that in that fashion. – Dori Jan 5 '11 at 1:48

I wonder if you're conflating or confusing words here…

  • abase - behave in a way so as to belittle or degrade
  • abash - embarrassed, disconcerted, or ashamed
  • bash - (3) criticize severely
  • debase - reduce (something) in quality or value; degrade

From the note on humble in the New Oxford American Dictionary:

Humble and humiliate sound similar, but humiliate emphasizes shame and the loss of self-respect and usually takes place in public (: humiliated by her tearful outburst), while humble is a milder term implying a lowering of one's pride or rank (: to humble the arrogant professor by pointing out his mistake).

Abase suggests groveling or a sense of inferiority and is usually used reflexively (: got down on his knees and abased himself before the king), while demean is more likely to imply a loss of dignity or social standing (: refused to demean herself by marrying a common laborer).

When used to describe things, debase means a deterioration in the quality or value of something (: a currency debased by the country's political turmoil), but in reference to people it connotes a weakening of moral standards or character (: debased himself by accepting bribes).

Degrade is even stronger, suggesting the destruction of a person's character through degenerate or shameful behavior (: degraded by long association with criminals).

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The main difference is that 'abase' is something you do yourself (or other people do themselves, of their own volition), whereas 'abash' is something that you do to other people (or other people do to you).

I'm also not convinced that 'abase' really means 'humiliate' or 'degrade', unless you assume that any signs of abasement are automatically humiliating and degrading. That was certainly not the original meaning of 'abase'; I'm not sure it is yet an acquired meaning.

From an ancient Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary (1978 reprint of 1972 edition with 1977 supplement), page 1:

abase, v.t. to lower: to cast down: to humble: to degrade. -- adj. abased, lowered. -- n. abasement. [O.Fr. abaisser, to bring low--L. ad, to, L.L. bassus, low.]

abash, v.t. to strike with shame; to put out of countenance: to astound: to confound.-- adjs. abashed: abashless, shameless: unabashed.-- n. abashment. [O.Fr. esbahir -- pfx. es- (L. ex, out), bahir, to astound--interj. bah.]

It seems clear to me that you do not normally abash yourself, so someone else does it to you.

It is not so clear that you do normally abase yourself, but the verb is often used reflexively - 'he abased himself'. I'm not sure how you could abase someone else.

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If you look at the below comment thread - can you find a usage of "abash" with the meaning "something that you do to other people (or other people do to you)"? – Dori Jan 5 '11 at 2:06

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