Q: I keep seeing “precipitous decline” used for a drop that’s beneficial. For example, “a precipitous decline in the deficit” during the Obama administration (Daily Kos), or “a precipitous decline in Covid-19 cases” in New York (USA Today). Isn’t a drop that’s “precipitous” supposed to be alarming or dangerous?
A: In our opinion, “precipitous” describes a decrease that’s both steep and negative. Like you, we’ve occasionally seen news stories that use “precipitous” in a positive way, but we think a better word for a beneficial decrease would be “dramatic” or “sharp” or “steep.”
Fowler’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), edited by Jeremy Butterfield, is on our side. “The core, literal meaning of precipitous is ‘sheer like a precipice; dangerously high or steep,’ ” Fowler’s says. “Derived from this is a metaphor to describe a change for the worse in a situation or condition, i.e., meaning ‘dramatic.’ ”
Notions of disaster are built into the word. Etymologically, as we’ll explain, someone or something whose fall is “precipitous” has been thrown off a cliff.
Of course, a word’s etymological meanings don’t always survive into modern times or influence how it’s used now. But we think that even today, a “precipitous” fall implies a change for the worse, not for the better.
The word came into English in the early 1600s when it was borrowed from French (precipiteux), the Oxford English Dictionary says. The French adjective had two general senses—(1) rash, impetuous, abrupt, and (2) steep or vertical.
It was derived from the Latin adjective praeceps, meaning not only steep but also headlong. (The literal sense of the Latin word is “head first”; it’s formed from the prefix prae- for “before” and caput for “head.”)
The OED’s earliest written example of “precipitous” is from 1646, but we’ve found more than a dozen earlier ones, all used in the sense of impetuous, rash, ill-advised, overly hasty, and so on. A few of the early sightings, including the first one, imply danger as well as haste.
Here’s the oldest use we’ve found so far: “Mankind runneth head longe to sinne when it is forbidden him; For euen as a torrent or land-floud [flood] running a violent and precipitous course, and meeting with any stop by the way becomes the more furious, and with redoubled force makes selfe way, and beareth downe al before it.” From The First Part of a Treatise Concerning Policy, and Religion (1606), by Thomas Fitzherbert.
Here are a few more of the early uses we’ve found: “rash & precipitous censure” (1609); “an act of extreme impiety or precipitous arrogancie” (1612); “so precipitous & inconsiderate” (1620); “Folly, lightnesse, unadvisednesse, and a precipitous nature” (1622); “the precipitous nature of the Prince, and the ill offices he had done already” (1632); “not precipitous a whit to attempt any thing unadvisedly” (1632); “the assaultes of a most precipitous Death” (1632); “a precipitous torrent, which when it rages, over-flows the plaines” (1640); “their precipitous hastinesse” (1644).
A slightly earlier form of the word was “precipitious” (sometimes spelled “praecipitious”), which was borrowed from the classical Latin adjective praecipitium (precipice-like). Originally, in the early 1600s, “precipitious” had dual meanings, according to the OED: (1) “acting or done in excessive haste; rash, unthinking”; (2) “involving risk of sudden fall or ruin; dangerous, precarious.”
The OED’s earliest citation is from 1612, but we found an earlier one in a book about the sin of pride. The author warns against boasting of great bodily strength, because strength is slow in ascending to its height, “but the descent is precipitious” (The Arraignment of Pride, 1600, by William Gearing).
And in this 1613 example, “precipitious” seems to mean disastrous: “glory and honour to the victor, euer deare and honest to the winner, precipitious and shamefull to the looser” (Sir Antony Sherley His Relation of His Trauels Into Persia, 1613).
We’ve also found an early use of “precipitously,” the adverb derived from “precipitous.” This appeared in a 1619 translation, from Italian, of the life of the Florentine Carmelite nun Maria Maddalena de’ Pazzi: “For sometimes the Diuell [Devil] strocke her ouer the head, sometymes he cast her downe precipitously.”
In fact, “precipice” itself once had twin meanings. In its earliest uses, the OED says, it meant (1) “a headlong fall or descent,” used mostly in a figurative way for “a fall into a disastrous situation or condition” (1606), and (2) “a high and vertical or very steep rock face; a crag, a cliff” (1607).
However, we’ve found an earlier use from 1603, in which the word (spelled “praecipice”) is used figuratively to mean the brink of disaster: “the deere Lord and treasure of my thought … / To such a headlong praecipice is brought.” (From The Tragedie of Darivs [Darius], a drama in verse by the Scottish poet William Alexander, first Earl of Stirling.)
It’s no surprise that “precipice” meant disaster early on, since it had that meaning in the languages it came from.
It was borrowed into English partly from Middle French and partly from Latin. In Middle French in the 1500s, précipice meant danger or disaster as well as a steep place. And in classical Latin, the noun praecipitium meant both a “steep place” and a “fall or jump from a great height,” the OED says, while in post-classical Latin it also meant ruin or disaster.
A couple of other English words starting with “precip-” had ominous beginnings, “precipitation” and “precipitate.” Both come from the Latin verb praecipitare, meaning to cast down or throw headlong.
In the 1400s, “precipitation” was a form of murder or capital punishment; it meant throwing someone (or being thrown) from a great height. In the 1500s, it took on other meanings, like abruptness and rashness; the weather senses—rain, snow, and so on—came along in the late 1600s.
And in the 1500s, to “precipitate” someone meant to throw him over a cliff, while the participial adjective “precipitate” meant “hurled downwards, as over a precipice,” the OED says. (In the same century, the verb and adjective “precipitate” also had meanings related to haste, speed, and rashness, similar to the senses they still have today.)
So as you can see, English words descended from Latin and beginning with “precip-” have long had a dual sense, implying both a sheer vertical drop and a hasty, headlong fall. And “precipitous” has retained those dual connotations, which is why you found it jarring when used to describe a sharp change for the better.
But what do current dictionaries say? Is a “precipitous” decline necessarily a bad one?
In their entries for “precipitous,” all of the 10 standard dictionaries we usually consult include definitions like overly hasty, abrupt, or done without thought. And all but one of the dictionaries indicate either directly or indirectly that a “precipitous” change is also dangerous or bad.
Three British dictionaries are the most specific about the negativity of “precipitous.” In their definitions, Longman and Lexico (formerly Oxford Dictionaries Online) include “dangerously high or steep,” and Lexico adds: “(of a change to a worse situation or condition) sudden and dramatic.” Collins says it can mean “very steep and often dangerous” as well as “sudden and unpleasant.”
Six of the remaining seven dictionaries say something “precipitous” resembles a “precipice,” which in addition to its literal meaning of a steep rock face or high cliff is described as a dangerous situation in the following definitions:
“a greatly hazardous situation, verging on disaster” (Webster’s New World); “the brink of a dangerous or disastrous situation” (American Heritage); “a dangerous situation that could lead to harm or failure” (Cambridge); “a situation of great peril” (Dictionary.com); “the brink of disaster” (Merriam-Webster and Merriam-Webster Unabridged). Collins, mentioned earlier, has a similar reference to “precipice.”
By the way, we sometimes see “precipitous” used to describe a steep rise (as opposed to a drop). Is this legit? Well, it’s a little odd but we haven’t found any evidence that it’s not acceptable in standard English.
Most dictionaries don’t address that question in their definitions, though their examples almost always describe falls, declines, drops, decreases, slides, and collapses. (Two examples to the contrary illustrate increases that are changes for the worse: “the precipitous cost increases at state universities,” in Longman, and “a precipitous increase in the number of marriages ending in divorce,” in Lexico.)
The definitions in only a couple of dictionaries specifically say that rises as well as falls can be “precipitous.”
Here’s Merriam-Webster, which seems to accept “precipitous” rises in only a literal (that is, geological) sense: “very steep, perpendicular, or overhanging in rise or fall” … “having a very steep ascent” (our underlining). All the examples given apply to a place or a geological feature. So clearly, you could justify saying that a street or slope or rock face had a “precipitous” ascent (or rose “precipitously”) to a great height.
Cambridge goes further and accepts figurative rises in its definition: “If a reduction or increase is precipitous, it is fast or great.” But no examples of precipitous increases are given.
A final word. For over 400 years, the adjectives “precipitous” and “precipitate” have been used to mean overly hasty or ill-considered. No one objected to this use of “precipitous” until the 1920s, so if you’ve heard such objections, ignore them. All ten standard dictionaries say “precipitous” and “precipitate” can be used synonymously.