First of all, I would like to apologize for my title's awkward formulation. English is not my mother-tongue.

I am looking at the word "absolute", which, according to Dictionary.com, has the definition

(4) free from restriction or limitation; not limited in any way: absolute command; absolute freedom.

(5) unrestrained or unlimited by a constitution, counterbalancing group, etc., in the exercise of governmental power, especially when arbitrary or despotic: an absolute monarch.


Origin: 1350–1400; Middle English < Latin absolūtus free, unrestricted, unconditioned (past participle of absolvere to absolve), equivalent to ab- ab- + solū- loosen + -tus past participle suffix

I understand that the Latin prefix abs- means "away from" or "opposite to". However, when abs- is combined with solū, or "loosen", the meaning seems to become "away from being loose" or "restricted" -- the opposite of being free.

I also understand that words like absolutism or absolute power imply the object has ultimate freedom to rule even though its subjects are restrained, but then, say, if we describe the "law of conservation of energy" as an absolute principle of physics, then there is neither freedom for interpretation nor an "absolute ruler" who possess the "freedom" to legislate. (After all, it is commonly regarded as the universal truth and none "arbitrarily made up" the law.)

Then where does the freedom in "absolute" go, since there is no recipient to the freedom and everyone else is subject to the restriction? I am still confused about whether absolute conveys freedom or its opposite.

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    Your logic fails at “away from being loose”—the prefix ab- does mean ‘away’, but it is “loosened away”, rather than “away from being loosened”, just like abstaining is “holding off/away”, not “away from holding”. Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 23:10
  • And I suspect that the second part is as in "solution" -- the more accurate translation thus becoming "undiluted".
    – keshlam
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 3:12

2 Answers 2


The OED etymology says:

from Latin absolūt-um loosened, free, separate, acquitted, completed, etc; past participle of absolv-ere: see absolve. The senses were largely taken direct from Latin, in which the development of meaning had already taken place, so that they do not form a historical series in Eng. Originally a participle -- absolved, disengaged: then an adjective -- disengaged or free from imperfection or qualification; from interference, connexion, relation, comparison, dependence; from condition, conditional forms of knowledge or thought.

The critical point is that "freedom" simply means 'separated'; that's the original source of the PIE root, which shows up also in the paradigm Greek verb λύω.

In other words, you can't tell, from the Latin affixes, what it means in English.
Because it was borrowed as a unit, with the affixes and the meanings already attached to it
by Latin speakers. The affixes are no longer productive in English, though they can be helpful.

  • 1
    I think it might improve the answer (since I had to spend a second or two puzzling it out) to change "pa pple" to "[past participle]"? Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 18:05
  • 1
    But now you know, right? Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 18:08
  • 1
    Now I believe I have interpreted your intent correctly; which is only approximately the same :-) Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 18:09
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    A pa pple a day gives the critics their say. Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 21:37

Etymonline.com refers in its entry for absolute to the word absolve, which in turn points to the entry for solve:

from PIE *se-lu-, from reflexive pronoun *s(w)e- (see idiom) + root *leu- "to loosen, divide, cut apart" (see lose)

Thus, the sense in absolute is "cut away", in the sense of "cut away from any restrictions".

When you say that something is an absolute principle of physics, you are saying that it is unrestricted, not bound by consideration of something else, hence "free of/cut away from restriction".

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    Is it ok to omit "abs-" from absolve and examine solve? (This is exactly what the dictionary did, but I am a bit worried about believing that it is just what it is without any annotation on the matter. I mean, absolve and solve are obviously very similar, and yet the prefix "abs-" in absolve does not give it a different meaning from solve.) Btw, I love your interpretation of the absolute principle. In a sense, freedom is also conserved because something or someone is always free.
    – Sean
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 18:00
  • Also, thank you for the website. It will help me a lot with my studying.
    – Sean
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 18:01
  • Exactly. Once we examine solve, we can see "to cut apart, divide"; and then we can add abs- meaning "away", and get "cut away". Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 18:01
  • (Which means essentially the same thing as "divide"; but that's because - as John Lawler states in his answer - the words were borrowed independently, as units, and not borrowed as root and affix which were later reconnected.) Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 19:13

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