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The Oxford Dictionary defines to abdicate as "fail to fulfill or undertake (a responsibility or duty)", which renders me wondering what does fulfill a responsibility mean.

I understand it (abdicate) this way: for instance, you have finished a course "How to repair TV sets" and every time your TV set breaks, you hire somebody else to repair it. In other words, there is a situation when you are supposed to do something, but you don't do it, for some reason -- you abdicate your responsibility.

  • I think to user abdicate, you need a proper context, and repairing a TV set is not quite appropriate, in my opinion. Usually, the verb is used with people with extremely high responsibility or extremely high social status. So, mostly, the context would be about a king's (or a queen's) throne, or a government's (or a state's) responsibility. – Damkerng T. May 13 '14 at 14:58
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As @oerkelens discusses, "abdicate" when used literally means to give up an office. And again as @oerkelens said, it is generally used only for lifetime offices like king or pope.

When people say "abdicate his responsibilities" they mean that a person has failed to perform some duty that he should have performed. Repairing TVs would probably not be an example of this, as whether someone took a class in TV repair or not, he is probably not seen has having any duty or responsibility to repair TVs.

A more likely use would be, for example, to say that a man who abandoned his family to run off with a younger woman had "abdicated his responsibilities as a husband and father". Or that the owner of a company who treated his employees badly to make a fast buck for himself "abdicated his responsibilities to his employees". That sort of thing.

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I usually only find the word abdicate in cases where the responsibility goes a little but further than that.

Recently, the Pope abdicated, and so did the Dutch queen. I do not necessarily agree with the use of the word "fail" because the negative connotations. These people "simply" gave up their office.

This is a verb that is usually used when someone resigns from an office that is normally for life. I have never heard of a president who abdicated, but kings, queens, and (only twice in history) the pope can do that. In many modern monarchies, abdication is a common thing, since kings an queens are no longer likely to die on the battlefield, causing them to live to ages that were unheard of when the institution was invented. Many a king or queen feels that when they become too old to fulfil their duties, instead of waiting to die, they "retire".

As to the usage, I have never heard it being used transitively - a king does not abdicate his reign, he abdicates.

OALD disagrees with me and states that "She was forced to abdicate the throne of Spain" is fine. I guess so - in cases where one has several offices, one does not necessarily abdicate all of them at once :)

It seems it is also used in a bit "looser" sense indeed of giving up responsibility, as MaulikV's example shows. It should be noted, however, that even then, we are talking about major (national) responsibilities.

I feel it would be quite overstated to use it in the context of you not wanting to repair your own TV.

  • I've never heard someone say "abdicate his reign". But people do often say "abdicate his office" or "abdicate his throne". – Jay May 13 '14 at 15:19
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OALD is a good dictionary but not the only one. In such case, don't hesitate digging other dictionaries :)

Macmillan describes it exactly the way you want.

abdicate (your) responsibility - to stop accepting a particular responsibility or obligation.

For example:

The government cannot abdicate responsibility for national security.

Furthermore, WordWeb defines it as...

abdicate: Give up, such as power, as of monarchs and emperors, or duties and obligations.

For example:

The King abdicated when he married a divorcee

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