Distinct - extinct

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The two adjectives distinct and extinct, derived from the verbs distinguish and extinguish and their related nouns distinction and extinction, are sometimes confused, by slip of the brain, tiredness, or clumsy typing fingers.

  • Distinct means 'clearly different [from]', 'that can be perceived as individual'. (The negative form is indistinct, as in "As the daylight faded, the outline of the house became indistinct.")
    • This (and the adverb distinctly) are sometimes used nowadays to mean 'clear[ly]' or 'definite[ly]', as in "The new scoring system gives a distinct advantage to fitter players"; "Her pronunciation was distinct", or "He mumbled indistinctly"; or "The outlines in Picasso's early drawings are distinct"; a parent may say to a child "I distinctly told you not to do that".
      • The adjective distinctive should not be confused with distinct. Distinctive is applied to features that serve to discriminate between, as in "The distinctive feature of the robin is its orange/red breast."
      • The noun distinction usually in present-day English carries the connotation of 'merit' or 'value': "Professor T.B.Smith served with distinction during the War, rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel."
        • The use of distinction in academic circles is best defined by OED (1896)'s meaning 9 b.: "The condition or fact of distinguishing oneself by excellence in an examination, as of a degree awarded with distinction; hence, a credit or acknowledgement of excellence awarded to candidates in some examinations who gain more than a certain mark, or otherwise impress the examiners with the high quality of their work; a mark or grade in this category."
  • Extinct currently means 'that has ceased to exist', 'no longer perceptible'. This may be applied to eyes (of a blind person) or hopes (of a defeated person or people); but is most commonly used of a natural species whose descent is finished - like dinosaurs or passenger pigeons. Disraeli famously compared Gladstone's Liberal government to a "a row of extinct volcanoes" in 1872; less figuratively, an extinct volcano is one that no longer erupts.


Etymological note: both extinct and distinct, which along with instinct are the commonest English words ending in '-tinct', are derived from the Latin verb stinguĕre, 'to quench', 'to extinguish', of which the past participle form is stinctus. OED says in its etymology for the obsolete form distingue that stinguĕre was "originally 'to prick or stick', but found only in sense 'to extinguish'". Don't confuse any of these with the obsolete tinct.