Quiz: how well do you know archaic animal names?
On 1 September 1914, Martha, thought to be the last surviving passenger pigeon, died in the Cincinnati Zoo. Once numbering in the several billion in North America, the passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction in the wild by the end of the 19th century, with only a few birds left in captivity. One of the first animals to go extinct in the public eye (the other notable one being the Tasmanian tiger), the death of Martha had a major impact on the conservation movement in the United States. Today, Martha is often invoked in discussions of endangered species when people talk about a species going the way of the passenger pigeon.
But despite the bird’s publicly visible extinction, the passenger pigeon hasn’t quite made it into the language like another extinct avian: the dodo. The long-extinct, flightless bird, last spotted by a shipwrecked Dutch sailor off the island of Mauritius in 1662, lives on in language through the phrase dead as a dodo. (The bird’s legacy was also undoubtedly helped by its cameo appearance in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.) The phrase is routinely deployed to suggest a metaphorical death, as in its use by W. Somerset Maugham in his 1944 novel The Razor’s Edge: “Take my word for it, dear fellow, English society is as dead as the dodo.” So in language, at least, the dodo is alive and well!
But on the other hand, there are plenty of words for common, extant species that fell into disuse and obsolescence. (Terms that are, I ought to say, as dead as the dodo.)