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First attested around 1380. From Middle English absteynen, absteinen, abstenen, from Old French astenir, abstenir, from Latin abstineō (to hold oneself back) from abs- (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 or doing something); keep from doing, especially an indulgence. [First attested around 1350 to 1470.][1]
    • 22 May 1948, United Nations, Security Council Resolution 49
      The Security Council [] calls upon all Governments and authorities, without prejudice to the rights, claims or positions of the parties concerned, to abstain from any hostile military action in Palestine and to that end to issue a cease-fire order to their military and paramilitary forces
    • 1597, Shakespeare, Richard II, II-i:
      Who abstains from meat that is not gaunt?
  3. (intransitive, obsolete) Fast (not eat for a period). [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]
    • 1913, Thomas Babington Macaulay, A Short History of English Liberalism:
      [] forcing a small portion of the population to abstain from voting
  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, Expositions on the four chief places in Scripture:
      Whether he abstain men from marying [sic].

Usage notesEdit

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



Derived termsEdit

Related termsEdit


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout#Translations.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 “abstain” in Lesley Brown, editor, The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, 5th edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, →ISBN, page 9.