Q&A: Abolition vs abolishment

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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 The only option Macquarie Dictionary even acknowledges for any of them is the outdated “publishment” – these days replaced by “publication”.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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