Distinguish - extinguish

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The two verbs 'to distinguish' and 'to extinguish', along with such related words as the nouns distinction and extinction and adjectives extinct and distinct are sometimes confused, by a slip of the brain, tiredness, or clumsy typing fingers.

  • 'To distinguish' means
    • 'to perceive the difference [between]', as in "a farmer can distinguish between male and female newly hatched chickens", "a moralist can distinguish between right and wrong", and "a musician can distinguish between a symphony by Haydn and one by Mozart".
      • The present participle distinguishing, applied to 'feature', 'mark' etc, means 'which is useful in identification': "the distinguishing characteristic of a dachshund dog is its short legs." (This use may often be replaced by distinctive.) Applied to a person, it means 'with the ability to discriminate [between the objects or matters under discussion].'
    • 'to single out [nearly always for approval or praise]' ("The Chairman distinguished the secretary for his endless attention to detail")
      • The past participle distinguished of this sense used adjectivally means, impersonally, 'meritorious', 'praiseworthy' ("She served as a distinguished member of the Foreign Office for thirty years"). This might also be phrased as 'with distinction'.) The adjective distinguished is used to describe personal appearance, essentially of the sort that an important and civilized person might present: elegant, respectable, wise - and usually elderly.
        • It is now considered affected to use the French equivalent distingué, as was common in the nineteenth century.
  • 'To extinguish' means, literally, 'to put out [a fire or a flame, etc]'. It is linked, more figuratively, to the adjective extinct, which is formed from the past participle of its Latin root: it is often applied to 'hope[s]', and sometimes to events such as rebellions, or institutions like bankrupt businesses.
    • An extinguisher is a device, usually coloured red and kept in an accessible and visible place, for emergency use in putting out fires.
Etymological note: both extinguish and distinguish, which, apart from some unimportant derivatives like 'interdistinguish', are the only English words ending in '-tinguish' 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'".