These three words form
an interesting cluster of destruction.
To extirpate is to pull
something out by the roots, literally or figuratively. The Latin stirp represented the stem or stock of a tree. So
originally, extirpate meant to clear an area of tree stumps. Ralph Waldo
Emerson used it figuratively: “Neither years nor books have yet availed to
extirpate a prejudice then rooted in me, that a scholar is the favorite of
Heaven and earth, the excellency of his country, the happiest of men.”
To eradicate is to pull
or tear up by the roots, to remove something. The Latin radix meant a root. Charlotte Bronte wrote:
“Prejudices, it is well known, are most difficult to eradicate from the heart
whose soil has never been loosened or fertilized by education; they grow firm
there, firm as weeds among stones.”
Unlike the first two,
exterminate does not involve roots. It came from a Latin word that meant to
drive someone out of the boundaries; then it evolved into utter destruction.
Joseph Conrad’s character Kurtz in The Heart of Darkness sounded like a Dalek when he wrote, “Exterminate
all the brutes!”
I should probably throw in annihilate, too, which literally means to reduce to nothingness:
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