The definition of the term abstract can be derived when broken down into its root words “abs” and “tract”. “Abs” is a common prefix used in Classical Latin meaning away from or alienated. A “tract” is a connection of related structures within the human body (i.e.: the digestive tract is the pathway that connects all of the organs that comprise the digestive system). Similarly, its Proto-Indo European root “traho” means to drag, trail or extract. However, in Classical Latin we also find another one of its derivates, “tractatus” meaning a handling, treatment or discussion dealing with speech or writing. Thus, “abstractus”, the oldest found Latin predecessor of abstract means to be removed from all that is sensory or bodily. As a result, in present day English, abstract is an adjective that most often refers to a term or concept “existing in thought or as an idea but not having a physical or concrete existence.” Abstract, is then a quality that indicates this idea is capable of existing independent of other ideas or things and can be understood without having to turn to alternate sources for examples. An abstract idea or concept is typically a generalization since it is not confined to specific details: it is that which captures the essence of a thing or the character of a person in broad terms. Since an abstraction is removed from all that is physical and can be defined without being restricted to examples, it can therefore be only a hypothesis or theory that serves as a basis for action. By not being very factual or practical, we often consider abstractions concepts that are difficult to understand.
Abstract can also be used as a verb meaning to remove, or set something apart. To be abstracted is to lack awareness of one’s physical or social surroundings and be preoccupied with matters emotional or mental.
When it refers to literature, an abstract (noun), is a passage removed from a larger text that gives the reader a representation of what the entire work is about, commonly found of the back covers of novels.
In the fine arts, abstract art is that which represents something in reality but is depicted through color, shape and texture rather than form to evoke a certain tone. James A. Whistler’s painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket does not illustrate actual forms, but rather, uses flecks and hues of colour to represent fireworks exploding in the night sky.
This idea of the “abstract” as a means of expression is also often used in film and music when lyrics and narratives are purposefully removed to create a strictly sensorial experience for the audience (i.e.: instrumental music). However, film or music do not necessarily always attempt to be representational in any way and thus, the term can only loosely be applied here.
1. "abstract, adj. and n.". OED Online. September 2012. Oxford University Press. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/758?rskey=jOOpqT&result=1&isAdvanced=false (accessed November 21, 2012).
2. Whistler, James A. Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. 1874.