Abstaining in Absence


I actually enjoy commencement exercises — the pomp, the circumstance, the grandmothers, the decorated caps, even the speeches. Only one niggling irritation blemishes the day, assuming the day is dry and not too hot. At about a third of the more than two dozen commencement exercises I have attended, the stalwart soul reading the names of graduates before they march across the stage into their futures has noted those who earned their degrees but could not be present by tacking onto their names the Latin in abstentia.

Now, Latin peppers the proceedings on these occasions. We give degrees to luminaries honoris causa, that second word pronounced in ways ranging from caw-za to cow-sa. Students merit various ranges of laude. So I suppose it is appropriate to note the missing students’ absence in Latin. But the word, as far as I can tell, is absentia.

I came home from the proceedings on Sunday determined to get to the bottom of that extra t. I was not mistaken in my understanding of Latin. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of absence uses the phrase in absence and traces its origin to the Latin in absentia, which breaks down more or less into “being elsewhere.” Google is so determined on the correct usage that my attempts to find in abstentia were met constantly with a gentle correction: Was I not looking for in absentia?

And yet the extra t is not unique to those I’ve heard pronouncing all the student names. Once you insist, Google coughs up its results: Almost 28,000 instances of abstentia. Some of these citations reflect (again) Google’s gentle forgiveness of me for my typo, in that the reference actually has the correct word; but hundreds are published uses of this nonword in books and articles. For instance:

Congress holds the key. It can permit courts to hold trials of defendants “in abstentia,” with the defendants not present. (Dan Robinson, Nuevo Laredo: A Prelude to War, 2009)

The court pronounced life sentences on 33 convicted defendants: Alehubel Amare (charged in abstentia) … (U.S. Department of State, Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, 1978)

The Advocate General used two arguments to deny that the scope of the right of a fair trial and the right of the defence in the case of judgement rendered in abstentia was an element of Spain’s national identity. (Colson & Fields, eds., EU Criminal Justice and the Challenges of Diversity, 2016)

The dukes of Carinthia in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries were frequently lords in abstentia. (John Eldevik, Episcopal Power and Ecclesiastical Reform in the German Empire, 2012)

The one, very brief investigation I’ve found, at the Eggcorn Forum, supports my own hunch that the insertion of that irritating extra t is a result of the speaker’s or writer’s momentary confusion of the root sources of absence and abstain. It’s a funny eggcorn, if that’s what it is. Absent means “Not present in a place or at an occasion; away.” To abstain is “to keep or withhold oneself”; abstinence is “the practice or discipline of resisting self-indulgence.” In both cases, something is lacking; with absence, the thing or person referred to isn’t there; with abstinence, one desires something but refrains from having or taking it.

Ironically, if you plan to abstain from voting in a committee, you usually need to be present to do so. Still, I can see — sort of — how in absentia can be conflated with abstaining, as if the missing candidate from graduation has chosen to withhold himself from the grandiose ceremony at hand. After all, commencement exercises aren’t for everyone. Maybe they’re self-indulgent, and should be resisted.

At least, that’s what I tell myself, as I listen on a sunny May Sunday to the recitation of names of those present and elsewhere. Perhaps, I tell myself, if there’s a good reason for it, in abstentia will stop grating on my ear.


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