Etymology
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abysmal (adj.)
1650s, "pertaining to an abyss," formed in English from abysm + -al (1). Perhaps only a dictionary word before 19c. Weakened sense of "extremely bad" is first recorded 1904, perhaps from abysmal ignorance (suggestive of its "depth"), an expression attested from 1847. Related: Abysmally.
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abyssal (adj.)
1690s, "unfathomable, unsearchably deep, like an abyss," from abyss + -al (1). Since 19c. mainly "inhabiting or belonging to the depths of the ocean" (used especially of the zone of ocean water below 300 fathoms), though in 19c. abysmal was more common in oceanography.
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a- (3)
prefix meaning "not, without," from Greek a-, an- "not" (the "alpha privative"), from PIE root *ne- "not" (source also of English un-).

In words from Greek, such as abysmal, adamant, amethyst; also partly nativized as a prefix of negation (asexual, amoral, agnostic). The ancient alpha privatum, denoting want or absence.

Greek also had an alpha copulativum, a- or ha-, expressing union or likeness, which is the a- expressing "together" in acolyte, acoustic, Adelphi, etc. It is from PIE root *sem- (1) "one; as one, together with."
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