The Grammarphobia Blog

The species of extinction

Q: You once helped me chose an etymological dictionary. It shows that “extinguish” and “extinct” have the same Latin root, extinguere, or to quench. How interchangeable are their related words “extinction” and “extinguishment”? For example, can one say “the extinction of the spirit” or should one say “the extinguishment of the spirit” to express “the demise of the spirit”?

A: I hope you’re finding the dictionary helpful. You’ll notice in it that many words with different meanings have come down to us from the same etymological roots.

For instance, both “mange” (an eating away of the skin) and “munch” (to eat or chew) may have come to us from the Latin verb manducare (to chew), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But let’s get to “extinguish” vs. “extinct,” the subject of your email. “Extinguish” is a verb meaning to put out or put an end to; “extinct” is an adjective meaning inactive or dead.

It turns out that “extinct” was once a verb meaning to extinguish, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), but that meaning is considered archaic today

Although the verb and adjective have different, though related, meanings, the two nouns you mention (“extinction” and “extinguishment”) do indeed mean pretty much the same thing: the act of extinguishing or the condition of being extinct.

So you could legitimately say either the “extinction” or the “extinguishment” of the spirit, though the word “extinction” sounds better to my ear.

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