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In 1898, Marie and Pierre Curie discovered radium. Claimed to have restorative properties, radium was added to toothpaste, medicine, water, and food. A glowing, luminous, green, it was also used in beauty products and jewelry. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that we realized that radium's harmful effects as a radioactive element outweighed its visual benefits. Unfortunately, radium isn't the only pigment that historically seemed harmless or useful but turned out to be deadly.
That lamentable distinction includes a trio of colors and pigments that we've long used to decorate ourselves and the things we make: white, green, and orange.
(Source: History's Deadliest Colors - a YouTube video.)

What's the intended meaning of 'distinction'? I don't see why the writer used this word. There is no distinction in terms of the previous sentence, "radium isn't the only pigment".

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  • I think it(That lamentable distinction) implies - that undesirable quality of being different.
    – Sam
    Commented Sep 13, 2023 at 9:30

4 Answers 4

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Distinction here means 'the quality of being different (distinct) from others'.

Radium has the distinction of being a substance that was once thought to be beneficial and decorative but was later discovered to be deadly. Unfortunately, some other pigments are now known to share that distinction.

(I'm not sure that radium is literally a pigment, but it was used in luminous paint for clock faces.)

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    The white must refer to lead white, the green to arsenic, and I suppose the orange to realgar ("ruby of arsenic"), or uranium oxide.
    – Joachim
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 8:11
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    @Joachim - Thanks! Having identified the source as a YouTube video - the orange is uranium oxide. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 8:25
  • In what respect, is ridium different[distinction] from others? The previous sentence says ridium is deadly though we didn't know this fact earlier.(This is sad/lamentable but not has any distinction)
    – gomadeng
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 8:45
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    Radium was once widely used but is now known to be deadly. The same applies to three pigments. This fact distinguishes them from other, safe pigments (makes them different). It's also, as Stuart points out, an ironic use of distinction in the sense 'excellence' - a lamentable distinction makes them 'very good at being bad'. Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 10:42
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Afraid to say that the selected answer is not correct. It is true that one of the definitions of 'distinction' is the quality of being different or unique - however, that definition does not fit the context of your example.

That lamentable distinction includes a trio of colors and pigments that we've long used to decorate ourselves and the things we make: white, green, and orange.

A quality that is possessed by something (or many things) could not include the thing that possesses it - yet that is what your statement says. "[the] distinction includes a trio of colors and pigments...". Distinction as a quality could be interchangeable with uniqueness, and you wouldn't say that uniqueness "includes" the things which are unique.

Distinction as a noun can also mean an honour or an achievement, and in some cases an award. This kind of 'distinction' can be awarded or attributed to multiple people or things that meet certain criteria. A related word to this is "distinguished", which is said about people who are highly qualified in some way. Distinction could also refer to an exclusive group to which things that meet the criteria belong. You can find this secondary definition in Cambridge Dictionary and ought to be in all reputable dictionaries.

Your text is saying that the criteria of a substance being considered harmless but later turning out to be harmful is a "lamentable distinction", and that this figurative achievement group contains radium and the other pigments mentioned.

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Distinction often has the meaning "the quality or state of being excellent or superior : the quality or state of being distinguished or worthy" (Merriam-Webster). However, putting "lamentable" in front reverses the meaning to the state of being inferior or particularly bad.

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    While it is true, that distinction seems irrelevant in this context: the most common definition, following the link you give, is "the act of perceiving [..] something as being not the same and often treating as separate or different : the distinguishing of a difference". In other words, it is neutral.
    – Joachim
    Commented Sep 12, 2023 at 11:14
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Unfortunately, radium isn't the only pigment that historically seemed (A)harmless or useful but turned out to be (B)deadly.

(A) is different from (B).

This difference is sad(lamentable).

So, 'that lamentable distinction' could be rephrased as

'this sad difference'.

'This sad difference' is not restricted to 'radium'.

The author's intention of 'distinction' is most likely to be 'difference' that hadn't been expected before.

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