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what is the meaning of "improve away"?

It is the presentation of a principle inherent in man's nature, a principle which his wisdom has improved away until it is wellnigh eliminated altogether, but which crops out again and again in spite of him —the principle of Spirit as opposed to Matter, of Soul acting and existing independently of the body which enshrines it. Long years of denial of aught but the properties of matter have landed the chief lights of modern science in pure Materialism. To them, therefore, this Spiritualism is a portent and a problem. It is a return to superstition; a survival of savagery; a blot on nineteenth century intelligence. Laughed at, it laughs back; scorned, it gives back scorn for scorn.

source:http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301051h.html _ hos by acd

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    To (verb) away can mean to remove or eradicate using the action of the verb - e.g. scrub, wash, wipe away dirt. Human beings have so 'improved' their nature that the principle of 'Spirit' has been 'improved away'. – Michael Harvey May 16 at 16:04
  • It's a deliberately facetious usage implying the author doesn't see any real "improvement". – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica May 16 at 16:12
  • Hence my quotes. – Michael Harvey May 16 at 16:12
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Away in the sense of:

continuously or repeatedly, or in a busy way:

  • I was still writing away when the exam finished.
  • Chris has been working away in the garden all day.
  • We were chatting away at the back and didn't hear what he said.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

The meaning of the sentence is:

a principle which his wisdom has continually improved until it is wellnigh eliminated altogether.

| improve this answer | |
  • I think this sense from that same Cambridge definition is the right one: "gradually until mostly or completely gone", e.g. "The music faded away", as in Michael Harvey's comment above. – Jack O'Flaherty May 16 at 17:34
  • @JackO'Flaherty - that would make sense with verbs like face, move etc. but improve? – user070221 May 16 at 17:38
  • I think so. Not like "move away", but more like "scrub away", including the result of disappearance. With "improve", it's a creative use, but it fits the sense of the sentence. Actually, on further thought, it could be either sense. – Jack O'Flaherty May 16 at 18:54
  • Yet further reflection convinces me that my original comment was correct. All the examples you quote are intransitive, while the OP clearly has a transitive use: "a principle..[which] his wisdom has improved away". It's a use analogous to "worn away", "scrubbed away", etc. – Jack O'Flaherty May 17 at 5:05

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