The Crisscrossing Histories of Abstract and Extract
Abstract is most frequently used as an adjective (“abstract ideas”) and a noun (“an abstract of the article”), but its somewhat less common use as a verb in English helps to clarify its Latin roots. The verb abstract is used to mean “summarize,” as in “abstracting an academic paper.” This meaning is a figurative derivative of the verb’s meanings “to remove” or “to separate.”
We trace the origins of abstract to the combination of the Latin roots ab-, a prefix meaning “from” or “away,” with the verb trahere, meaning “to pull” or “to draw.” The result was the Latin verb abstrahere, which meant “to remove forcibly” or “to drag away.” Its past participle abstractus had the meanings “removed,” “secluded,” “incorporeal,” and, ultimately, “summarized,” meanings which came to English from Medieval Latin.
Interestingly, the word passed from Latin into French with competing spellings as both abstract (closer to the Latin) and abstrait (which reflected the French form of abstrahere, abstraire), the spelling retained in modern French.
The idea of “removing” or “pulling away” connects abstract to extract, which stems from Latin through the combination of trahere with the prefix ex-, meaning “out of” or “away from.” Extract forms a kind of mirror image of abstract: more common as a verb, but also used as a noun and adjective. The adjective, meaning “derived or descended,” is now obsolete, as is a sense of the noun that overlapped with abstract, “summary.” The words intersected and have separated in modern English, but it’s easy to see that abstract applies to something that has been summarized, and summarized means “extracted from a larger work.”
AdjectiveIt is true that the atrocities that were known remained abstract and remote, rarely acquiring the status of knee-buckling knowledge among ordinary Americans. Because the savagery of genocide so defies our everyday experience, many of us failed to wrap our minds around it.—Samantha Power, New York Times Book Review, 14 Mar. 2002A glance into the classrooms of the Los Angeles public school system … fleshes out the abstract debates with the faces of children.—Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 1997I take my photographs and print them on a laser copying machine in the "photo" mode; the resulting image is more stark and abstract than a traditional photographic print, which tends to dominate the page regardless of the text.—Leslie Marmon Silko, Yellow Woman and a Beauty of the Spirit, 1996abstract ideas such as love and hate
“Honesty” is an abstract word.
The word “poem” is concrete, the word “poetry” is abstract. Noun
an artist admired for his abstracts
the scientist wrote a bare-bones abstract of his research and conclusions Verb… artists in the group put the emphasis on geometric abstraction rather than images abstracted from nature.—Robert Atkins, Art Spoke, 1993… the Romantic project was to abstract from religion its essential "feeling" and leave contemptuously behind its traditional formulations.—Theodore Roszak, The Making of a Counter Culture, 1969… conscientiously and with great purity made the uncompromising effort to abstract his view of life into an art work …—Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, 1959… basic esthetic criteria and standards he has abstracted from long intimacy with time-tested masterpieces.—Aline B. Saarinen, New York Times Book Review, 7 Nov. 1954
Data for the study was abstracted from hospital records.
personal problems abstracted him so persistently that he struggled to keep his mind on his work See More
Recent Examples on the Web
But her mother, the abstract painter Mary Obering, only saw potential.—Curbed, 20 Nov. 2023 Instead, use descriptive terms that refer to physical characteristics instead of abstract terms that label a child according to their age.—Marla Bautista, Parents, 20 Nov. 2023 Akili Ron Anderson’s vigorous paintings are nearly abstract, but with shapes and details that evoke the human body.—Mark Jenkins, Washington Post, 17 Nov. 2023 Tian and his team developed a CG technique based around particles, creating 3D images from abstract Chinese ink paintings.—Patrick Frater, Variety, 15 Nov. 2023 As with any executive order, the rub is in how a sprawling and abstract document will be turned into concrete action.—WIRED, 14 Nov. 2023 Ruscha saw it the other way around—a demonstration that serious art did not have to be improvisational or abstract.—Susan Tallman, The New York Review of Books, 2 Nov. 2023 My original vision was a book of abstract, beautiful Pat Graham photographs that used my guitars as the source material.—Lily Moayeri, SPIN, 24 Oct. 2023 Massive curving forms, abstract but suggestive of nature, link the styles of sculptor Rachel Rotenberg and painter Steven Cushner.—Mark Jenkins, Washington Post, 10 Nov. 2023
Throughout his career, Mr. Spano’s instincts ran toward the abstract.—Alex Williams, New York Times, 8 Nov. 2023 Kamb co-authored the new findings, which were released Thursday in an abstract at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.—Alexander Tin, CBS News, 19 Oct. 2023 The succinct abstract to Dr. Susan Hough's 2018 paper on whether the Moon triggers earthquakes.—Erik Klemetti, Discover Magazine, 30 Aug. 2023 DeSantis’s appeal has largely always been this abstract.—Alex Shephard, The New Republic, 19 June 2023 Until this moment, Salas was an abstract of a baseball player.—Bryce Miller, San Diego Union-Tribune, 14 June 2023 One reason for that might be that fewer African American patients have tumors where immunotherapy is more likely to work, according to an abstract presented at AACR.—Angus Chen Reprints, STAT, 20 Apr. 2023 But a pair of abstracts being presented Sunday at a medical conference highlight how, just a decade after CRISPR’s debut, researchers are deploying the tool at diseases with more complicated roots that go beyond genetics.—Andrew Joseph, STAT, 16 July 2023 Suburban plans include big works slated for civic sites and parks this year in Shelby Township, Clinton Township and Mt. Clemens, the last set to get a 30-foot abstract take on Michigan pine trees.—Bill Laytner, Detroit Free Press, 16 Apr. 2023
Bird’s musical color is magenta, and it gets passed to Coltrane who abstracts the shape of the sound, and then that gets passed to Hendrix, in whose hands the sound becomes electrified, noisy.—Lily Moayeri, SPIN, 7 Nov. 2023 Beyoncé, 42, has figured out how to adjust her voice (her characteristic growl floats in falsetto) and adjust her body language (more benevolent, like a gilded patroness) to abstract the object and subject of the song.—Jenna Wortham, New York Times, 27 Sep. 2023 But greater use of AI will create a growing number of military encounters in which humans are removed or abstracted from the equation.—WIRED, 27 July 2023 Park notes that Hollywood action scenes often function like balletic interludes, entertaining spectacles to be enjoyed for their own sake and somewhat abstracted from the story.—Patrick Brzeski, The Hollywood Reporter, 11 Aug. 2023 What’s notable about Secret Invasion, styled as a Cold War spy thriller but abstracted from the ideological conflicts of the real Cold War, is how common its particular form of evasiveness has become among TV’s most popular thrillers.—Time, 12 July 2023 To modern eyes, this reads as an appealing universality, achieved through abstracting the particulars into intimations that are left up to the viewer to resolve.—Philip Kennicott, Washington Post, 23 June 2023 Gang’s design shares the methodical madness and off-kilter fragility of those designs, both abstracting and emulating the process of natural change.—Curbed, 25 Apr. 2023 Reliant on their host system operating system kernel (Windows containers run on Windows, Linux containers run on Linux), containers are an abstracted element of cloud computing systems, which are essentially virtualized and abstracted at their core in the first place.—Adrian Bridgwater, Forbes, 18 Apr. 2023 See More
These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'abstract.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.
Middle English, "withdrawn, removed, abstruse, extracted from a longer work, (of nouns in grammar) not concrete," borrowed from Medieval Latin abstractus "removed, secluded, incorporeal, universal, extracted from a larger work, summarized," going back to Latin, past participle of abstrahere "to remove forcibly, turn aside, divert," from abs- (variant of ab-ab- before c- and t-) + trahere "to drag, draw, take along" — more at draw entry 1
Middle English, derivative of abstractabstract entry 1 (or borrowed directly from Medieval Latin abstractus)
Middle English abstracten "to draw away, remove," derivative of abstractabstract entry 1 (or borrowed directly from Latin abstractus)
: a written summary of the key points especially of a scientific paper
: a pharmaceutical preparation made by mixing a powdered solid extract of a vegetable substance with lactose in such proportions that one part of the final product represents two parts of the original drug from which the extract was made