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According to Cambridge Dictionary the verb abhor carries a moral connotation (at least), indicating a strong feeling of detesting something on moral grounds:

abhor: to hate a way of behaving or thinking, often because you think it is not moral:

  • I abhor all forms of racism.

However, I've noticed that the related noun abhorrence does not usually have the same degree of association with morality. Typical sentences showing this are:

  • He has an abhorrence of monkeys.
  • Most people have an abhorrence of snakes.
  • Many people show abhorrence of spiders.

And Cambridge doesn't add the rider about morality:

abhorrence: a feeling of hating something or someone: ...

  • She has an abhorrence of change. ...
  • The writer reviews the effect of this blunt abhorrence of abnormal forms ...

[Though to be fair, 90% of the example sentences given do involve a moral revulsion.]

Looking back at the animal examples: at first glance, there aren't specific reasons to detest these animals for moral reasons. But I considered the possibility that covert (or perhaps projected) moral qualities could be involved. For instance, spiders are hematocryal ... although that might sound quite far-fetched.

So can anyone support this theory of broadening? And can anyone offer an explanation for the difference in degree of association with moral judgements associated with abhor and abhorrence?

If necessary, you could involve etymological accounts.

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    I think the premise of your question is wrong. The dictionary definitions of abhor don't say that it is used exclusively for detesting something morally. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 12:13
  • [to hate a way of behaving or thinking, often because you think it is not moral][1] [1]:dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/abhor Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 12:20
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    There's the word often in that definition; it's not actually wrong to say "I abhor snakes." And take a look at this Ngram; people have an abhorrence of slavery a lot more often than they have an abhorrence of snakes. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 12:21
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    @PeterShor: But as this NGram shows, a century ago people nearly always said I abhor slavery, whereas today they're just as likely to say I detest slavery (apparently we always detested rather than abhorred snakes, though). Bottom line: to abhor is falling out of fashion in modern English. Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 12:56
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    See Merriam-Webster: "abhorrence" can mean "abhorring" but can be used in a weaker sense "strong repugnance or disgust". This isn't too unusual. If you look in the OED I'm sure you can get more detail on how usage has changed.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Jul 3, 2023 at 13:06

2 Answers 2

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Addressing your speculation that abhorrence was generalized, it appears that the opposite occurred and that abhor was specialized.

Looking in the OED, the original meaning (from the OED) was the same as the Latin word abhorrere:

abhor: To shrink with horror or repugnance from; to recoil from. Obsolete.

From the citations in the OED, it looks like what happened is that abhor's meaning narrowed to mean "detest on moral grounds", rather than abhorrence's meaning broadening to include cases when the grounds for abhorrence were not moral ones.

Here are some of the uses of abhor from the OED, chosen from recent enough citations that they are comprehensible, but from long enough ago that the meaning had not yet narrowed; I believe these show that abhor originally wasn't mainly used for immoral things (although of course, sometimes it was).

a1522 G. Douglas tr. Virgil Æneid (1960) xiii. x. 47 Abhor thou nocht the fyre and flambis brycht,

1555 W. Waterman tr. J. Boemus Fardle of Facions ii. x. 216 This people so despiseth al other men,..that thei abhor to speake to theim.

1576 T. Rogers Philos. Disc. Anat. Minde ii. xlv. f. 197v Ingratitude, a vice of all other moste to be abhorred.

a1616 W. Shakespeare Twelfth Night (1623) ii. v. 193 Hee will come to her in yellow stockings, and 'tis a colour she abhorres.

a1616 W. Shakespeare Othello (1623) iv. ii. 166 I cannot say Whore, It do's abhorre me now I speake the word.

1617 F. Moryson Itinerary i. iii. i. 208 Most part of the Marriners are Greekes, the Italians abhorring from being sea men.

1678 J. P. tr. J. Johnstone Descr. Nature Four-footed Beasts iii. i. 63/1 The creaking of wheels frights him. A bright table-cloath drives him away. He abhors fire, and dares not come neare it.

Your other question was: why is abhorrence used for non-immoral things more often than abhor? Possibly it has to do with a lack of synonyms for abhorrence.

Here are some synonyms for detest/abhor and the associated nouns. (The asterisks indicate words that, although they are in the dictionary, are very rarely used.)

I abhor snakes.
I have an abhorrence of snakes.

I loathe snakes.
I have a loathing of snakes.

I detest snakes.
*I have a detestation of snakes.

I despise snakes.
*I have a despisal of snakes.

So possibly somebody trying to turn detest into a noun may not think of loathing, and may use abhorrence instead.

Finally, I want to add that I think abhorrence carries a connotation of immorality as well, although maybe not as strong a one as abhor. This Ngram shows that people are more likely to have an abhorrence of falsehood, but more likely to have a loathing of snakes.

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  • But what is the certain reason why the meaning of abhor is narrowed down to "detest on moral grounds"? Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 4:04
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    @ThomasPeng: Except in very rare cases, we can never figure out the "reason" for a change in how words are used. Nobody decided to change the connotations of abhor; it just happened. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 10:36
  • ... One possibility is that someone in the public eye used a word to apply to a subset of all possible relevant referents, and the use with this association took off, with a strengthening level of connotation Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 12:03
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According to Cambridge Dictionary the verb abhor carries a moral connotation (at least), indicating a strong feeling of detesting something on moral grounds:

It is not even a generalisation: it is wrong because it is incomplete.

A better statement would be

In certain contexts, according to Cambridge Dictionary the verb abhor carries a moral connotation (at least), indicating a strong feeling of detesting something on moral grounds:

Abhor relates to morals when morals are the context.

I abhor vinegar. I really cannot stand it.

Can you see any morality in vinegar?

OED (which does not mention morals)

2. To regard with disgust or hatred; to loathe, abominate. Now frequently in hyperbolic use.

a. transitive.

1959 R. Lardner Best Short Stories III. 51 He absolutely abhors visiting and thinks there ought to be a law against invitations that go beyond dinner and bridge.

1999 Antique Dealer & Collectors Guide Apr. 41/1 One either abhors or adores the paintings with their primary colour and thick black outlines.

1920 E. H. Porter Mary Marie iii. 32 ‘Oh, yes, my little maid’ (above all things I abhor to be called a little maid!) one of them cried.

These uses are indistinguishable from those with a moral content:

2004 D. Fletcher Dark Warrior xxviii. 273 As much as it abhorred her, she would have no choice but to be intimate with Decimus as soon as possible.

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  • The fact is that we never use 'I abhor vinegar':Ngram Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 3:21
  • @ThomasPeng - I am unsure who you think "we" refers to - do you mean "non-native speakers?" I would remind you that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. You really need to understand how English and Ngrams works. You will see that there is no result in Ngrams for "I abhor usury/infidelity" so what does that show?
    – Greybeard
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 9:12

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