• precipitous •
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: 1. Having one or more precipices, such as a precipitous cliff. 2. Extremely steep and thus resembling a precipice. 3. Abrupt, headlong, sudden, unexpected.
Notes: This Good Word has a cousin, precipitate [pri-si-pê-têt], with a meaning almost indistinguishable. While precipitous may mean "abrupt, headlong, sudden", precipitate is used almost exclusively in this sense. The noun underlying precipitous is precipice "a high, steep embankment". Precipitate is derived from the verb, precipitate [prê-si-pê-teyt] "to effect, to cause to happen".
In Play: Here is a mnemonic that will help you keep all the meanings straight: "Rafael's precipitate decision to climb the precipitous precipice precipitated his premature demise." That alone is worth the price of today's word but here is a bonus: "Brooke Trout is such a cold one that the warmth of the company dissipated precipitously when she entered the room."
Word History: The histories of precipitous, precipitate and precipice emanate from the same source: Latin praecipitium "precipice" from praeceps, praecipit- "headlong". Prae- shares an origin with English fore- not to mention the same meaning. Cipit is a reduction of caput, which shares an origin and meaning with English head via Old English heafod. Another Latin variant, capitulum "little head," was ground down to chapitre by French whence it was snitched as the English word, chapter. (We waited until now to thank Apoclima of the Alpha Agora for alerting us to these two similar and oft-confused Good Words so that our gratitude would not seem precipitous.)
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