The following use of the word "abortion" got my attention. It is from Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, published in 1951. Here is the context:

"...Listen. I met a man on the Common today with three legs."

"How terrible," Henry said seriously. "An abortion?"

Most definitions of "abortion" I've checked focus mostly or exclusively on the termination of pregnancy which, at least in North America, is the most common meaning. There are a few definitions given which appear to correspond to Henry's use:

Merriam-Webster: MONSTROSITY (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abortion)

Oxford Dictionaries: "2 an object or undertaking that is unpleasant or badly made or carried out."

And way down on this page on Dictionary.com: "6. a person or thing that is deformed"

But otherwise, as far as I can tell from the etymologies on the above links, and from this question, it looks as though the the word abortion has always referred to the early end to a pregnancy.

My question is, was Greene's usage ever common? I can't very well search Google Ngrams since it would be impossible to differentiate the intended meanings. Would a British reader in 1951 have made any association at all with an early termination to a pregnancy, when reading the exchange above?

  • I should add that I am quite sure no pun was intended. There was no reference anywhere in the book to childbirth, miscarriage, abortion (as more commonly defined today) nor to the Catholic church's stance on these matters. – JAM Jul 24 '12 at 17:05
  • Could it be a bastardisation of something abhorrent? ab-horrent ab-ortion? Just my fully uneducated wild guess ;) – gerrit Jul 24 '12 at 21:19
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    Greene usage is OED's definition 3: The imperfect offspring of an untimely birth, or any dwarfed and misshapen product of generation, in the literal sense, which was probably relatively uncommon even in the 50s. But that definition continues with hence fig. the nugatory or empty result of any action, which has morphed into an object or undertaking that is unpleasant or badly made or carried out - a sense which has always been familiar to me since the 60s. – FumbleFingers Jul 24 '12 at 21:52
  • Thank God that not everything is searchable. I wonder if people don't find similar things in books in their own languages. – Lambie Sep 12 '20 at 20:13

Interesting :) But you can imagine that monstrosity is an extrapolation of the primary baby, miscarriage, blood and death definition. You actually can use Ngrams for this by searching for the term along with an appropriate adverb. In this case, I made an educated guess and searched for something along the lines of hideous abortion, ugly abortion and similar. As you have noted, the frequency of usage has petered out in the last few decades, albeit, not down to zero :) The graph also indicates that it was still being used with relative regularity in the '50s.

A few examples excerpted from the results:

From A sack of shakings by Frank Thomas Bullen, 1901:

She was everything that the Harbinger was not — an ugly abortion that the sea hated. When I first saw her (after I had shipped), I asked the cook whether she wasn't a razeed steamboat — I had almost said an adapted loco-boiler.

From The French Revolution: The Bastille by Thomas Carlyle, 1911:

Miserable man ! thou " hast done evil as thou couldst " : thy whole existence seems one hideous abortion and mistake of Nature ; the use and meaning of thee not yet known.

and via Wiktionary, from Pictures of Italy, Chapter 10, by Charles Dickens, 1846:

Insomuch that I do honestly believe, there can be no place in the world, where such intolerable abortions, begotten of the sculptor’s chisel, are to be found in such profusion, as in Rome.

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    Thanks 'beetle' -- great quotations. And extensive answer. – JAM Jul 25 '12 at 2:11

Coleopterist’s etymological hunch is correct: abortion comes from Latin meaning to terminate a pregnancy by accident (to miscarry) or by intent (in which more restricted sense abortion seems increasingly to be used).

My inclination would be to assume that Greene knew his craft well enough to pick his words wisely. In addition to the sources coleopterist cites, you can find a contemporary review of Frankenstein describing the monster as “an abortion and an anomaly”.

A quotation from The Godfather: Part II gives a likely idea of how this metaphorical extension of meaning would have arisen. “Just like our marriage is an abortion. Something that’s unholy and evil.”

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    Just a minor addition to the Latin etymology: the Italian equivalent of abortion is also used to indicate a failure in something we have done and likewise we use the verb in a figurative way to say that something has not reached its (foreseen) positive conclusion. – Paola Jul 24 '12 at 20:39
  • @Paola, thanks for the correction. I’d misunderstood the etymology I’d checked, with regard to the meaning of the verb as opposed to those of its derived nominals. For the curious, here’s the underlying verb: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/aborior#Latin – Daniel Harbour Jul 24 '12 at 21:47

I have certainly heard the term used that way "in the wild". I had a co-worker who used to use it to characterize any badly-conceived (pun half-intended, I think) corporate policy.

In the USA at least, I think the word is so heavily and emotionally used in the political realm these days, that the other sense of it is perhaps falling by the wayside.

  • There are only 18 written instances of "a bloody abortion" in Google Books, but most of them are for the "complete mess" sense - which I thought would be more common, since I seem to hear it quite often. – FumbleFingers Jul 24 '12 at 20:26
  • @FumbleFingers - Well, that wouldn't catch any usage of the term in the USA, as the word "bloody" isn't really used here in any but the most literal sense. Any hit you got on those two words together in the USA would most likely be from extreme pro or anti-abortion groups. – T.E.D. Jul 24 '12 at 20:30
  • I'm sure you're right. I believe Americans have long tended to avoid all to cock in "polite society" in the belief that it's inherently crude, for similar reasons. But OED defines abortion as The imperfect offspring of an untimely birth, or any dwarfed and misshapen product of generation; hence fig. the nugatory or empty result of any action, and I have no problem with it. I expect pretty soon NASA will have to avoid saying "Mission abort!" (if and when the context arises again :) – FumbleFingers Jul 24 '12 at 20:47
  • @FumbleFingers - Yeah, that particular four-letter word is also never used in a metaphorical sense here either. Instead, we use the "f-word" where you'd use that one. I don't believe there's any difference in crudity of the equivalent phrase here, we just don't use "cock" that way. – T.E.D. Jul 24 '12 at 21:37
  • But the whole point is it's not really a "four-letter word" in "all to cock" - which I'd have been quite happy to use in front of my grandmother until she died a few years ago. I'd certainly never have said "fuck" in her hearing - in fact, I usually used to say "Fiddlesticks!" rather than "Dammit!" in her company, and I've no doubt she'd have ticked me off if I said "Bloody hell!" (which I bet I never did! :) – FumbleFingers Jul 24 '12 at 21:43

In D. H. Lawrence's short story "The Daughters of the Vicar, (1911)" Lawrence has one of his characters use the word "abortion" to describe a sickly and frail person. He describes this person in the prose as "a small, chetif man, scarcely larger than a boy of twelve." I believe that the common use of that time was to reference a disabled or severely underdeveloped person.

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