What does relict mean?

Word count: 197 words

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: relict.

I’m not usually stumped by natural history signs, but when I was recently wandering the Mojave Desert (in Joshua Tree National Park) one such sign caught my eye.

It contained the word relict, and I didn’t know what that meant. I asked my husband, who has a degree in zoology — he frequently understands scientific terms that elude me — and he didn’t know either. Of course, we could guess, based on the context of the sign. But I think public signage should be infinitely more transparent than that!

Turns out, the official definition of relict is: An animal or plant that has survived while others of its group have become extinct. (The rhino, picture above, falls into this category.) The word is from the Medieval Latin term, relicta, meaning “widow.” If I’d thought about it, I’d have realized that relinquish (meaning “to give up”) comes from the same root.

That said, if I’d been writing this sign, I think I would have headlined it: A Surviving Population rather than A Relict Population.

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