Last Of A Kind

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The word “endling” has given artists, writers, and others a new way to reckon with the meaning of extinction. ILLUSTRATION BY BJØRN LIE

Douglas Adams provided my first adult consideration of extinction, after a childhood fascination with dinosaurs, which I loved in part because of the mythology that their extinction seemed to encourage; Last Chance to See was an eye-opener, sad, funny and more. So this post on the New Yorker website catches my attention. Same depressing topic, with a New Yorker twist of wit:

WHAT DO YOU CALL THE LAST OF A SPECIES?

By Michelle Nijhuis

When Robert Webster, a physician in Jasper, Georgia, died, in 2004, he was survived by his wife of more than half a century, two daughters, four grandchildren, and a single word, which he had coined himself: “endling,” defined as the last person, animal, or other individual in a lineage.

According to Bruce Erickson, a former colleague of Webster’s, the story of “endling” began at a convalescent center in suburban Atlanta in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when a patient told Webster that she was the only surviving member of her family. Unaware of any word that could describe her situation, Webster saw an opportunity for neologism. In conversation with Erickson and others, he considered candidates including “ender,” “lastoline” (a contraction of “last of the line”), and “yatim” (Arabic for “orphan”), but eventually settled on “endling,” which he liked because its suffix recalled both “line” and “lineage.” But when the doctor submitted his invention to Merriam-Webster—“It cracked me up that someone would just call up the dictionary and propose a new word,” Erickson told me—he was informed that to merit an entry, a word had to have made regular appearances in print.

Undaunted, Webster (no relation to Noah) purchased a small advertisement for “endling” in the back pages of a medical journal. Then, in 1996, he and Erickson wrote a letter to the journal Nature about the “need for a word in taxonomy, and in medical, genealogical, scientific, biological and other literature, that does not occur in the English or any other language.” To Erickson’s surprise and Webster’s satisfaction, readers responded. From Australia, the theoretical chemist David Craig wrote to say that he preferred “ender,” already in the dictionary and rarely used for other purposes; an employee of a California gene-therapy company opined that “endling” had a “somewhat pathetic feel to it, similar to ‘foundling,’ ” and proposed the regal-sounding “terminarch” as an alternative; from the Isle of Man, another reader wrote to argue that no new word was needed, since “relict” was perfectly suited to the purpose. But, after the hubbub had died down, “endling” seemed to languish. Erickson and his family eventually left Georgia for Washington State, and he lost touch with Webster. Like the plastic tick extractor that Webster had invented and once given to Erickson as a gift, his word became a clever, faintly disturbing, and nearly forgotten tool.

Nearly forgotten is different from entirely forgotten, however, and in the late nineties, when the National Museum of Australia, in Sydney, was preparing to open its doors, “endling” resurfaced. An archeologist and museum curator named Mike Smith recalled Webster’s letter to Nature, and he incorporated the word into an exhibit about the thylacine, an extinct carnivorous marsupial also known as the Tasmanian tiger. Thylacines, which looked less like tigers than like small, lithe wolves, were demonized (probably unjustly) as sheep-killers, and were hunted and trapped by Australian colonists throughout the nineteenth century. The last known thylacine—the thylacine’s endling—died in captivity in 1936. The National Museum’s exhibit was designed to look something like a family mausoleum, with a thylacine pelt and, later, a thylacine skeleton, displayed inside a galvanized-metal cabinet. The outside of the cabinet, which was engraved with the names of other extinct Australian species, also bore the word “endling” and its definition…

Read the whole post here.

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