Green things or get extincted

« previous post | next post »

Two things from recent days: first, I posted on my blog about, among other things, the innovated verb bigger 'make bigger, enlarge', noting that zero-verbing of adjectives is not very frequent in English; and then, yesterday's New York Times Magazine was an issue about "The Green Mind", which reminded me of the now-ubiquitous use of green (roughly, 'environmentally responsible') as a verb meaning 'make green(er) [in this sense]': another zero-verbed adjective.

I was then reminded of a discussion a while back on the American Dialect Society mailing list on the innovated verb extinct 'make extinct, drive to extinction'.

OED2 (1989) has the adjective green in the appropriate sense from 1971 (in the name Greenpeace), and the 1993 additions series has the corresponding verb from 1985 ("antipathy to 'greening' England"); later cites include "tips on greening your home" (1989) and "green our tax code" (1990). The sense the OED gives is:

To render (a person etc.) sensitive to ecological issues; hence, to make (something) less harmful to the environment, to adapt along environmentally lines. Also with up.

Now there are a huge number of Google hits. A few recent ones for {"to green the"}:

6 Ways to Green the White House
Congressional Leaders Announce Plans to 'Green the Capitol'
To 'green' the world's buildings, think retrofits
How to green the Recession
45 Ways to Green the Not-So-New House

On to the verb extinct. Back in November I came across this example:

bring back the wooly mammoth, extinct the mexicans (link; comment from "wooly mexicans")

The OED has the verb in a number of senses, all extinct; the last cites (in any sense) are from the 17th century. But it's certainly alive (again) today: there are a huge number of hits for the passive, but some active ones too. Many of the references are to the extinction of species:

Birds Extincted since Audubon's time (link)
Dodos question: When did the dodo bird get extincted? (link)
Discussion on 'Who started to extinct the elephants?" (link)

There were inevitable complaints (not on ADS-L, but elsewhere) about the innovation of such "unnecessary" items. To which I replied on ADS-L:

There's one answer for the active-voice examples ("enough to extinct the species") and another for the passive-voice examples ("extincted birds").

The motivation for the first (like the motivation for a great many verbings) is, to start with, brevity; to extinct is more compact than to make … extinct, to drive/force/push … to extinction, etc. Usually in such cases there is also a subtle meaning difference that follows from having a single verb vs. a periphrastic construction: a single verb tends to express more direct connection between verb and object (this is a matter of iconicity, seen in many places).

For the second set of examples, the choice is between constructions of similar length (in number of words). People ask: why use extincted when extinct is available?  Here, the difference is between a verbal formulation like extincted (admittedly, passive, but still verbal) and an adjectival formulation like extinct. The verbal formulation alludes to an event (and thereby suggests a cause for the event, likely a human cause), the adjectival formulation a state (and therefore lacks these suggestions). So extinct just says that X used to be around but isn't now, while extincted says this and more: it suggests that human beings caused the extinction.

Mark Mandel followed up with the observation that he uses extinguish for 'make extinct'. This usage strikes many people as not quite right, but I did find some examples in scientific contexts, almost all of them with species as the head of the direct object of an active verb or the head of the subject of a passive. For instance:

The dodo is the most famous animal extinction in human history. With its death came the realization that humans have the ability to extinguish an entire species. (link)

(There are also examples with exterminate, but conveying 'destroy completely' rather than merely 'make extinct'.)

Comments are closed.