Philology Phriday–Abstract

4 Jun

As part English major part amateur blogger, I think its high time that someone started doing this. And by this, I mean Philology Phriday. As its name and irreverent disregard for conventional spelling suggests, I’m going to start flexing my philology muscle (along with my ability to navigate the OED) every friday and do a semi-focused account of a word’s story. I’m planning on doing this for at least 26 weeks straight, lest I die or, worse off, I get sick of words. I hope you’re in this for the long haul.

If you have suggestions for words I should research, email me at devtronvarma@gmail.com or find me on facebook.

So the first word I’d like to explore is abstract––which is a great word for exploration simply because it has so many uses. I’ll only focus on one, though. There’s the well-known adjective, which means withdrawn from contemplation of present objects. It’s probably best-known as the arch rival of concrete. I know we have seen these two duel in debates and discussions before, mudslinging slurs at each other like a couple of crooked primetime politicians vying for some respected though impotent position as the undisputed heavyweight “better way to address issues philosophical, cultural, and downright intellectual.” Does anyone ever win in fights like that?

Anyway, I think there is a side to abstract we haven’t ever seen before, the side that doesn’t get printed in the fake newspapers and US Weeklies that my mind pictures in this horribly overly drawn-out metaphor. The OED states that abstract is the offspring of  abs (which indicates away-ness, or outer-ness) + tractus (the Latin past participle of trahere, meaning to draw). The marriage was short, sweet, and fruitful. Although some people suspect that tractus was sleeping around on sweet abs.

In the olden days, somewhere around the 14th century, the word abstract meant something close to its probably half-sibling extract (which, as its parents’ identities suggest, should be the case). It was used most often in the past participle, as in, when I was playing Mortal Kombat with  Dev, he did a fatality that abstracted my character’s heart from his body.

But later on in the use of the word, its own meaning was itself abstracted (or drawn away). Instead of simply being a half-sibling of extract, you know playing games of hide and seek with each other and what not, abstract had to grow up and become a big boy word. Hobbes Leviathan, written in 1651, categorizes abstract with being “severed from the account of matter”.

Seeing this brings a tear to my eye. In the short span of less than three centuries, abstract was plucked out of a game of flashlight tag with his possible flesh and blood (or I guess ink and paper) extract and some buddies (obtuse wasn’t there, his mom didn’t like him playing with those boys) and taken into the parlor and forced to lose his innocence. I’m sure abstract cried during the process. Abstract probably shrieked, “No, no! I’m not severed from anything! No, really! I’m telling the truth. I’m not severed from everything! I’m drawn from something! I’m just outside! But I’m still connected I swear! Hobbes, you don’t have to do this! Noooo!”

But the new use of the word packed abstract‘s connotation bag no matter how much it may have screamed. Now, being abstract no longer means simply drawing ideas out of other things. No. Now it means severed from things. Don’t even get me started on the word severed. Reminds me of the guillotine. Now it’s thrown in with such miscreants as abstruse, or idealist, or even (make sure your parents or your boss isn’t over your shoulder…okay good) detached.

But lurking in the shadows of academia, I think there may be one use of the word that still holds somewhat to its meaning at birth. Most theses and dissertations are preceded by an abstract. It is a compendium of the essences of the humongous, probably boring at times and largely unnecessary, thesis or dissertation. It is literally like the author of such an overwhelming piece of work decided, for the benefit of review boards and grant committees, that the good stuff had to be shown to people before they read it, so the author takes it out and staples it right in front of the massive work, both drawing it away from the work but also connecting it. This to me seems like a remnant of the old abstract, one that didn’t get such a bum deal in the hostile Hobbesian takeover.

Maybe there is hope for it yet. Lord knows, I will pray for abstract.

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