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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
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 11:04
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    and "abject horror"
    – JoseK
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 12:20
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    "Look at Chicolini...He sits there alone...An abject figure." "I abject!"
    – mmyers
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 12:26
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    I just realised I use it a lot with "...stupidity."
    – detly
    Commented Apr 21, 2011 at 2:48
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    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.
    Commented Mar 21, 2014 at 20:41

5 Answers 5

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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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    THe New Oxford American Dictionary also has "abject sinner" as an example.
    – Daniel T.
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 19:15
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    The extreme downward trend of "abject terror" is interesting...why?
    – user16723
    Commented Feb 10, 2014 at 4:26
  • The Ngram for "abject" (blue line) versus "abject poverty" (red line) is also interesting: the frequency of occurrence of abject has declined by several orders of magnitude since the early 1800s; but the frequency of occurrence of "abject poverty" has, in contrast, been remarkably steady over most of that period.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Jun 16, 2017 at 20:05
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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
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 12:21
  • Indeed - excellent examples.
    – The Raven
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 13:16
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    @kitukwfyer: er, no. "abject lesson" makes no sense. You mean "object lesson". Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 16:08
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    Good spot and point taken (+1 given, too).
    – The Raven
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 17:51
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    @Daniel D'Oh! That's what I get for waking up early like a "healthy" person. -_- Thanks for catching that!
    – kitukwfyer
    Commented Apr 20, 2011 at 18:55
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To rest satisfied with the present is a sign of an abject spirit. Washington Irving, Journals, 1817

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  • I thought it was a sign of enlightenment? Living in the Now and all that. Commented May 27, 2015 at 3:27
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    @Chellspecker I imagine it's the same school of thought that gave rise to "Show me a man who is content, and I will show you a man who has given up."
    – user867
    Commented May 27, 2015 at 3:32
  • How times change. Whither work ethic? Commented May 27, 2015 at 3:38
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I use it with apology. Some acts can only be forgiven after a most abject apology.

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  • Abject apology is sanctioned by usage, of course, but still to my ears the odd one out in the sense that the apology itself is meant to be the very opposite of abject; it is the person who has to profusely avow the abjectness of whatever their offence might have been!
    – Deipatrous
    Commented Sep 19, 2023 at 9:00

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