I was shocked the other day when Gizmodo editor Luke Hopewell used the phrase 'abject lesson'. He's an excellent writer and a well-educated young man, but he fell victim to an all-too-common mishearing. The correct phrase is 'object lesson'.
Here's the definition of 'object lesson' from our usual resource, the Macquarie Dictionary:
A practical illustration of a principle, especially one serving as a warning.
There is no definition for 'abject lesson', because it's a nonsense phrase. It only pops up because people have misheard the expression and assumed the word 'abject' was used. The Macquarie defines 'abject' as "utterly humiliating or disheartening", which imparts an entirely different meaning.
Here's a recent example of 'abject lesson' being used in a news report about sport:
They produced a display that was an abject lesson in how to capitalise on every opportunity.
That is nonsensical if you consider what 'abject' means. Use the correct phrase 'object lesson' and it makes sense.
Abject failure? No problem. Abject lesson? That is, itself, an abject failure.
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