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Word of the Week: 'extinction'


We take a closer look at the words and phrases that are trending online and in the media. This week: ‘extinction’.

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It’s been a busy few weeks: we’ve seen bare bottoms in parliament, glued bottoms on Waterloo Bridge – and climate change move firmly up the agenda as nonviolent activist group, Extinction Rebellion, continues to protest across London.

The disruption – which saw people closing roads, stopping trains, taking over the Natural History Museum and chaining themselves to Jeremy Corbyn’s garden fence – has led to the arrest of over 1000 protesters or, as they have come to be known, voluntary “arrestables”.

Their demands? That the government declare an ecological emergency, reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and create a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee progress – all changes considered so challenging that they could see the UK entering a situation akin to wartime.

It is thought that humans will cause so many mammals to become extinct in the next 50 years that the planet’s evolutionary diversity won’t recover for three to five million years – a testament to Extinction Rebellion’s firm belief that mass extinction, the sixth of its kind, is well underway. But what does this word – one set to seal our universal fate – actually mean?

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What does ‘extinction’ mean?

Well, Extinction Rebellion’s posters set it out in layman’s terms for us: “everyone gone forever”.

Other definitions include “a situation which no longer exists” and “the act of extinguishing” – while some get down to the nitty gritty: “complete destruction and annihilation”.

And of course, it wouldn’t be an edition of Word of the Week without us dipping into the absurd realm of the Urban Dictionary, where the adjective ‘extinct’ is defined as: “Gone. Wasted. Trashed. That feeling when you know you won’t remember anything”. 

One online dictionary helpfully points to the word’s synonyms, but simply reads “see: death”. 

‘Extinction’, currently a breakout search term on Google Trends, is thought to have first been uttered around 1375-1425, in late Middle English. It stems from the Latin ‘extinctus’ which means to “put out” or “quench” and originally related to the putting out of fire, before it went on to mean the wiping out of a family line. It wasn’t until the 1580s that it came to relate to the death of a species.

The psychologist’s view

In psychology, ‘extinction’ is defined as: “the gradual weakening of a conditioned response, resulting in a behaviour decreasing, and eventually disappearing”.

Does the sudden uprising by Extinction Rebellion have the potential to weaken our conditioned responses, largely ones of unthinking mass consumerism and a disregard for the cold, hard, frightening facts – responses that will inevitably lead to our own mass ‘extinction’?

While there is a chance of this, psychologists also think ‘extinction’ doesn’t necessarily mean the conditioned behavioural response is gone forever. 

If we are to condition our behaviour and make mass consumerism extinct – in order to avoid ‘extinction’ – there is still the potential for it to make a spontaneous recovery somewhere down the line. 

Our chances of making ‘extinction’, extinct, are slim – lending British cultural theorist, Mark Fisher’s argument that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism itself” some rather depressing clout.

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