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First attested around 1380. From Middle English abstene, absteine, absteynen, absteinen, abstenen, from Old French astenir, abstenir, from Latin abstineō (to hold oneself back) from abs- (from) + (tineō (hold), from teneō (I hold)). See also tenable.



abstain (third-person singular simple present abstains, present participle abstaining, simple past and past participle abstained)

  1. (transitive, reflexive, obsolete) Keep or withhold oneself. [Attested from around 1350 to 1470 until the mid 16th century.][1]
  2. (intransitive) Refrain from (something); hold oneself aloof; to forbear or keep from doing, especially an indulgence of the passions or appetites. [First attested around 1350 to 1470.][1]
    • (Can we date this quote?), Shakespeare, Richard II, II-i:
      Who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
  3. (intransitive, obsolete) Fast. [First attested around 1350 to 1470.][1]
  4. (intransitive) Deliberately refrain from casting one's vote at a meeting where one is present. [First attested around 1350 to 1470.][1]
  5. (transitive, obsolete) Hinder; keep back; withhold. [Attested from the early 16th century until the mid 17th century.][1]
    • (Can we date this quote?), John Milton, (Please provide the book title or journal name):
      Whether he abstain men from marying [sic].

Usage notes[edit]

  • (keep or withhold oneself): Followed by the word from or of.
  • (refrain from something): Followed by the word from.



Derived terms[edit]

Related terms[edit]


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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 “abstain” in Lesley Brown, editor-in-chief; William R. Trumble and Angus Stevenson, editors, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 5th edition, Oxford; New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0-19-860457-0, page 9.