September 16, 2007

Abject lesson

I don't think that a reader named Stephen was making fun of me when he wrote

I really love your blog ... it has given me more things to gripe about.

But I'm not sure. Stephen prolonged the suspense by explaining

I really hate it when people say "I would of ..." and the like. I, tend to read sentences with inappropriately placed commas with the commas pronounced out loud - that, is my biggest gripe.

And then he really made me wonder by asking this:

I'd like your opinion on the concept of "object lessons" - my understanding is that the more correct form is "abject", but "object" is used more commonly - and is now acceptable - because "abject" is a word not known by those who don't read, i.e. the majority.

As incorrections go, this one is pretty far out there. The OED has

object lesson n. (a) (now chiefly hist.) a lesson in which a pupil's examination of a material object forms the basis for instruction; (b) fig. a striking practical example of a principle or ideal.

with citations back to 1831.

Searching Literature Online, I find a number of hits for "object lesson". Thus George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch:

He found the family group, dogs and cats included, under the great apple-tree in the orchard. It was a festival with Mrs Garth, for her eldest son, Christy, her peculiar joy and pride, had come home for a short holiday---Christy, who held it the most desirable thing in the world to be a tutor, to study all literatures and be a regenerate Porson, and who was an incorporate criticism on poor Fred, a sort of object-lesson given to him by the educational mother.

And Thomas Hardy wrote in Jude the Obscure:

Then they tried to laugh, and went on debating in whispers the object-lesson before them.

The string "abject lesson" doesn't occur in the OED, nor does it occur in Literature Online, nor do I recall ever having seen it before. However, it gets 10.400 Google hits, and says that in Indian English

An abject lesson serves as a warning to others. (In some varieties of English 'object lesson' is used.)

Searching Google News for {"abject lesson"} this morning turns up four hits. One is from India, two are from South Africa -- but one is in a piece by Alexander Laman, "The most commercial of music festivals", The New Statesman, 8/21/2007:

Iggy Pop jumping around, throwing himself into the crowd and causing havoc on stage is now de rigeur for a performance, but the intensity and verve with which Tim Booth, managing to look sinister even while clad in a skirt, fronted a reformed James was an abject lesson in not every band reunion coming over as a cynical cash-in.

The string {"object lesson"} gets 124 Google News hits, supporting my belief that "abject lesson" is an eggcorn (though perhaps one that is becoming dominant in some regional Englishes). I'm less sure about whether Stephen was seriously hoping to be able to gripe about people who haven't converted this idiom yet from object to abject.

In fact, this morning's mailbag is full of mysteries. For example, was someone trying to send me a message by putting me on the mailing list for Colorectal Congress 2007 ("It is an honour for us to welcome the worldwide opinion leaders in Rectal Cancer to St. Gallen")?

[Update -- several readers have written in to tell me that they too are abject lessoneers. Thus Emily Lilly:

I am an avid reader of Language Log (which I always refer to as "the Language Log" in conversation--somehow, I'm not sure that a namer can just declare a proper noun as strong versus weak, but that's not why I'm writing). My husband and I browse through it every day--we met in the linguistics graduate department at UMD-College Park.

Anyway, I am 32, and was raised in variety of places (first Illinois, then NJ, then a 2.5-year stint in the Netherlands, back to NJ, then college in MA). I have always said and written the phrase as "abject lesson". I'm not sure where or when I picked it up (probably not in Illinois--I left at the age of 7!), but there it is. Perhaps a TV or comics-section character used it during my childhood, or some other such media vehicle that was aimed more at my age group than at the previous generations. It would be worth looking into the age breakdown of the folks who say "object" vs. the folks who say "abject".

I was quite surprised to find that I was using the wrong word! I'm usually pretty good at getting these sorts of things right. (Okay, so I'm totally anal retentive about this sort of thing, which is why my dad, who has just written his first book, is going to give me the last draft so that I can edit for grammar, spelling and punctuation. Other family members with other talents and interests are getting it ahead of me...)


Posted by Mark Liberman at September 16, 2007 12:10 PM