Q&A: Abolition vs abolishment

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re writing our “ish” list…

Q: Hi AWC, I made a wish list of things I wanted to talk about this week, but my dog chewed off a corner of it. So now it’s an “ish” list.

A: Fair enough. So how can we help?

Q: It’s to do with the noun form of “abolish” – do I use “abolishment” or “abolition”?

A: Great question. Both words appeared about the same time, are listed in most dictionaries, and mean the same thing. However, “abolition” has always been the preferred sibling.

Q: But isn’t “abolition” used just for referring to the end of slavery?

A: It’s certainly been lumped with that association, but that’s not an official definition. So we suggest using “the abolition of taxes” instead of using the less-favoured “abolishment”.

Q: Hmmm. Sounds outlandish to establish such a rubbish rule. Because I’ve been looking at other verbs like “admonish” and “astonish”, as well as “punish”, “banish” and “nourish” – and they ALL add “–ment” to get their nouns!

A: Hashtag indignant?

Q: Indeed!

A: Okay, calm the farm. This mawkish behaviour can end. These words all had their origins in Old French around the Middle Ages – curiously they were once “–iss” endings before they became “–ish”.

Q: Are you taking the pish?

A: No, it’s true. And in many cases, BOTH –ish and –ition versions existed side by side before one would eventually die out. This is certainly true of now defunct words like “punition” – once a valid form of “punishment”.

Q: I don’t think we should get sidetracked discussing valid forms of punishment.

A: Good point. Also, you forgot that “admonish” (meaning to gently warn) actually does have “admonition”. In fact, it was “admonition” that came first, with “admonish” back-formed from it – and the subsequent “admonishment” an extension of that.

Q: Oh, okay, I’ll give you that one.

A: Basically, this is English up to its old tricks again. Exceptions around every corner.

Q: Other examples?

A: Take the verbs “perish”, “vanish” or “publish” – none have either ending option anymore. The only option Macquarie Dictionary even acknowledges for any of them is the outdated “publishment” – these days replaced by “publication”.

Q: So no such word as “perishment” or “vanishment”?

A: There was once. But rather appropriately, these words perished – simply vanished.

Q: Funny-ish. So we use “death” and “disappearance” for those instead?

A: Exactly.

Q: Any others?

A: The word “demolish” bucked the trend and went the other way. So we ended up with “demolition” winning out over the now defunct “demolishment”.

Q: All this talk has made me rather peckish. I could make a delish dish of crayfish vanish right now.

A: That’s ish-ful thinking.

Q: Actually it reminds me of when I was a child and I would refuse to take off my lobster costume when I went to bed. My mother said I had to stop being so shellfish.

A: Oh dear. Time to finish.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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