English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

A newfangled suffix?

Q: I keep seeing “admonishment,” “abolishment,” and “diminishment,” though I assume that correct usage dictates “admonition,” “abolition,” and “diminution.” Are these “-ment” words recently fashioned? Do their users deserve punishment (or punition)?

A: Interestingly, all six of those nouns (the ones ending in “-tion” as well as those ending in “-ment”) showed up hundreds of years ago, borrowed to one degree or another from Anglo-Norman, Middle French, or Old French, but ultimately derived from Latin.

The “-tion” versions you prefer have been preferred by English speakers for centuries, though they seem to be used less these days. As far as we can tell, there’s been no significant increase lately in the use of the “-ment” versions.

That’s the impression we have after comparing the three pairs in Google’s Ngram viewer, which tracks words or phrases in digitized books: (1) “admonition” / “admonishment,” (2) “abolition” / “abolishment,” and (3) “diminution” / “diminishment.”

We suspect that your belief that the “-ment” versions may be new is an example of the “recency illusion,” a term coined by the linguist Arnold Zwicky for “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent.”

The older of these words, “admonishment,” appeared in the late 13th century. The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a Kentish sermon dated around 1275: “So us defendet þo ilke þinges fram senne and fram þe amonestement of þo dieule” (“So these very things defended us from sin and from the admonishment of the devil”).

“Admonition” showed up a century later. The earliest OED example is from Chaucer’s translation (circa 1380) of De Consolatione Philosophiæ, a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius: “Nedeþ it ȝitte … of rehersyng or of amonicioun” (“It needs … of rehearsing and admonition”).

Both “admonishment” and “admonition” are ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb admonēre (remind, advise, urge, warn, inform, or rebuke).

As for “diminution,” the OED cites another Chaucer work, the poem Troilus and Criseyde (c. 1374), for the earliest example: “To encrece or maken dyminucioun Of my langage.”

“Diminishment” arrived nearly two centuries later. The first Oxford example is from a religous tract by the English cleric John Bales: “All is to demynyshment of a kynges power” (from The Actes of Englysh Votaries, a 1551 critique of the monastic system).

The two nouns ultimately come from two classical Latin words: the verb dīminuĕre (make smaller) and the adjective minūtus (small).

(We wrote a post in in 2014 on the common misspelling of “diminution” as “dimunition.”)

The last two words, “abolition” and “abolishment,” showed up around the same time in the early 16th century.

The first Oxford citation for “abolition” is from The Supplycacyon of Soulys, a 1529 treatise in which Thomas More defends the Roman Catholic clergy against Reformist critics: “They by the dystruccyon of the clergy, meane the clere abolycyon of Chrystys fayth.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for “abolishment” is from Common Places of Scripture, Richard Taverner’s 1538 translation of the writings of the Lutheran theologian Erasmus Sarcerius: “Where so euer throughout the worlde the abolyshment of the bysshop of Romes vsurped power shal be bruted or cronicled.”

As for the suffixes, “-ment” ultimately comes from the classical Latin -mentum (used to form nouns from verbs), while “-tion” comes from -io and io-nem (added to the t ending of Latin participial stems to form nouns).

Getting back to your question, do the users of these “-ment” words deserve punishment (or punition)? No. We have no objection to the “-ment” versions. As for the relatively rare “punition,” that’s more likely to raise eyebrows these days.

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