What's an Abject Lesson vs. an Object Lesson?
An Object Lesson: The Pelican
Correct Form: "Object Lesson"
As a writer, I sometimes look up words and phrases to make sure that I've picked one with just the right shade of meaning. I was quite puzzled when I looked up "object lesson" on Google and found people talking about "abject lessons."
What are those? I have a strong grasp of English, yet I'd never heard the phrase before. Are they some kind of lesson in humiliation and deprivation, the kind of ordeal Job underwent in the Bible?
It turns out that "abject lesson" is an eggcorn, a special form of malaprop (wrong word usage) caused by two English words sounding about the same in a particular dialect. In this case, the culprit might be Indian English, which pronounces the "a" in "about" and "abject" very much like an "o" sound.
The way to cure oneself of a malaprop is to learn the meanings of both words.
Abject (Adjective): Pitiful, Wretched, Vile, Untouchable
Abject is an adjective describing something or someone in a wretched condition. That condition could be poverty, weakness, helplessness, or destruction. By extension, abject can sometimes mean "contemptible, disgusting, groveling," so one can be an "abject sinner" or give an "abject apology." Abject spans the spectrum from pathetic (a state to be pitied) to despicable (a state to be shunned or scorned).
Members of the "untouchable" caste were abject in every sense of the word, scorned and considered debased as often as they were pitied.
Object (Noun): A Thing, Goal, Purpose, Target
One definition of an object is just a physical thing: an "unidentified flying object" is an unknown thing that's assumed to be real and solid.
A second definition of object is a thing you aim for, a purpose, goal, intention or target. For example, "The object of this exercise is to improve your spine's flexibility."
I believe the phrase "object lesson" blends both meanings of "object."
Examples of Eggcorns
One of a number of funny books reporting actual examples of misheard words and phrases that result in humorous nonsense. (Mostly song lyrics, in this case.)
Definition of "Object Lesson"
An "object lesson" is an example: a thing which serves the purpose of teaching a lesson. It can also be a demonstration, such as a scientific demonstration, which proves or illustrates a principle.
A science museum, for example, is basically a collection of objects — things, displays — which teach you a lesson.
Darwin Award stories (real or invented) are examples behavioral object lessons. The recount stupid things people do to get themselves killed, with the goal of teaching us to use judgment and critical thinking. "Object lesson" is often used nowadays to for one particular kind of lesson: never do this! In other words, object lessons often serve as a warning.
Some object lessons are symbols. The medieval bestiary was a collection of illustrated stories about real and mythical beasts, each one a lesson in a particular virtue. The pelican was fancifully portrayed on her nest, piercing her breast with her beak to nourish her young with her own blood. This biologically incorrect symbol served as an object lesson of selflessness for parents and clergy, and was also a symbol of Christ.
While some object lessons, such as Hans Christian Anderson's story of the "Little Match Girl," are abject, the phrase "abject lesson" really doesn't make sense as a "thing which teaches through example."
Remember that abject = "wretched" while object = "thing, goal, purpose" and you should be able to avoid this mistake. Object lessons are things which have a purpose: to teach. They are not lessons designed to arouse pity.
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