The noun abyss refers to a deep void or chasm — either literal or figurative. Making a momentous life decision with great uncertainty, like enrolling in clown college, might feel like jumping into the abyss.
Traditionally, the abyss referred to the “bottomless pit” of Hell. Now it might refer to either a literal chasm or a figurative one: “Thirty years ago, we peered into this abyss and pulled back just in time.” The word is sometimes used to describe a wide difference between cultures or nations. Abyss comes from Greek: a- “without” + byssos, “depth, bottom.” You may know the related adjective abysmal, which means “appallingly bad” — or “way down in the depths,” as it were.
What does the phrase “stare into the abyss” mean?
The word “abyss” means a deep, almost endless cavern or hole. The literal meaning of this phrase, then, is to stare into endless darkness.
To understand the actual meaning of the phrase, it helps to know the full sentence: “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back.”
In plain English, you might rephrase this as “When you confront evil, make sure it doesn’t influence you.”
For example, if a politician is investigating corruption, they may begin to see it everywhere and may themselves become corrupt as a result.
In a more extended use, the phrase can be used to mean the effect that study of anything at all can have on your mind.
Endlessly seeking out the truth in an “abyss” can lead you to unpleasant truths, after all.
In short, then, “staring into the abyss” means to deeply contemplate something foreign to yourself, and which may have consequences on your concept of your own self.