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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Object lesson

A Wordlady reader has inquired whether 

a striking practical example of a principle or ideal

is an 
object lesson 

or an 
abject lesson.

One can see how these two words can be confused in some varieties of North American English where a "short O" and a "short A" can be pronounced very similarly.

Also "object lesson" is hardly transparent.

But "object lesson" it is. 

Originally, an object lesson was a lesson in which a pupil's examination of a material object was the basis for teaching, to help understanding of an abstract notion. For instance, students would hold in their hand a familiar object (a seashell, a thimble...) and describe it in depth.


This type of lesson was promoted by the late 18th century Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, in contrast to the then current practice of rote learning, memorization, and recitation. Object lessons became very popular in Victorian times. The object being described would have been considered a typical example of its kind.

By the late 1800s, "object lesson" had taken on its current figurative meaning of a striking example. 

In current practice, it is also used in religious education to mean a type of demonstration with real objects that illustrates a moral or religious principle.

"Abject" on the other hand is an adjective with a few meanings:
  • 1. (of something bad) experienced or present to the maximum degree: his letter plunged her into abject misery | abject poverty.
    • (of a situation or condition) extremely unpleasant and degrading: the abject condition of the peasants.
  • 2. (of a person or their behaviour) completely without pride or dignity; self-abasing: an abject apology. 
Now, some people may have very unhappy memories of school, and so they may consider those days as "extremely unpleasant and degrading", but all the same, they were not "abject lessons". 
Obviously, these words are etymologIcally related. Both came into English in about 1400 from Latin. "Object" is from objectum (thing presented to the mind) from ob- (in the way of) + jacere (to throw).  "Abject" came from Latin abjectus (rejected), from ab- (away) + jacere (to throw).

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.