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shameless pleading





Allay / Abate


Dear Word Detective:  Recently a colleague asked me to distinguish between the verbs “allay” and “abate.”  I remarked that “abate” can be either a transitive or an intransitive verb while “allay” is always transitive, but I couldn’t differentiate them any further. Can you assist? — Michelle Miller.

Oh boy, my favorite thing: two words that almost, sorta, kinda, maybe really do mean the exact same thing. A passport to hours, days, decades (sometimes centuries!) of impassioned arguments on which often depends the very fate of civilization. Whee! If you think I’m exaggerating, ask your friends about the difference between “rebut” and “refute.” Both mean “to disprove; to show to be false.” But “refute” has also been used since the 1880s to mean “to reject an allegation or deny the truth of an assertion,” which is a bit different since it doesn’t involve, y’know, actually proving the statement is false. That’s a controversial usage, and usage mavens have been duking it over this “deny” sense since 1916, but it’s never too late to join the party. Personally, I’m gonna go wait in the car.

In the case of “allay” and “abate,” the difference between the words is, as you say, difficult to detect. In fact, the current common senses of both verbs (to lessen, relieve, reduce, diminish) are so similar that many dictionaries list one as a synonym of the other.

“Allay” is the older of the two words, first appearing in Old English (as “alecgan”) and derived from the Germanic roots “a” (down, away) plus “lecgan” (to lay, also the source of the English verb “to lay”). The initial uses of “allay” were “to put down, lay aside” (literally), or “to abolish, abandon, destroy or overcome,” all of which are now obsolete. From there “allay” toned it down a bit and developed its modern meaning of “subdue, calm, appease” and “alleviate, relieve, moderate (“The bath often seems to allay the thirst to some extent, and always allays the restlessness.” 1907). By the way, although today “allay” is only found as a transitive verb, there was at one time an intransitive sense (meaning “to subside”), but it’s now considered obsolete (“And when the rage alaies [allays] the raine begins.” Shakespeare, Henry VI, Pt 3.).

“Abate” first appeared in the 14th century, derived from the Old French “abbatre,” meaning “to knock down, demolish, kill” and similar forceful things, which was in turn derived from the Latin “abattere,” combining “ab” (off, away) with “battere” (to beat, contend). In English, “abate” initially meant “to terminate, dismiss or eliminate,” but it soon developed the milder sense of “to lessen, reduce or diminish,” which is the common meaning today. A tax “abatement” is a reduction, “noise abatement” laws keep the peace, and a headache that “abates” with aspirin is a good thing. This sense of “abate” also produced the shortened form “bate” in the 14th century meaning “to lessen or restrict.” We now use “bate” only in the phrase “with bated breath,” meaning holding one’s breath in anticipation, which was popularized by Shakespeare in The Merchant of Venice (“With bated breath, and whispring humblenes.”1600).

In terms of differences between the words in usage, “abate” tends to be used for literal lessening of tangible processes or things (storms, floods, epidemics), while “allay” is a bit less tangible and tends to be used in more subjective contexts, e.g., allaying fears, concerns, and social conflicts.

1 comment to Allay / Abate

  • Moley

    Although it’s a bit archaic, where does “bate” in the sense of “a bad mood” fit in, e.g. “he was in a fearful bate last night”?

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