What does ‘precipitous’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: precipitous….

Ophelia Dahl (pictured above) grew up in privileged and challenging circumstances. She was the daughter of movie star Patricia Neal and wildly successful writer Roald Dahl, author of (among others) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Although the family had plenty of money, they also had more than their fair share of heartache. In 1960, their four-month-old son Theo suffered brain damage when his baby carriage was struck by a cab in New York City. Then, two years later, their daughter, Olivia, died at age 7 from encephalitis related to measles. After Ophelia was born in 1994, her mother suffered three burst cerebral aneurysms and was left in a coma for three weeks.

Perhaps it was this early exposure to trauma that led Dahl to become interested in helping others. Now, she is the  president and executive director of Partners In Health (PIH), a Boston, Massachusetts-based non-profit healthcare organization dedicated to providing what it calls a “preferential option for the poor.”

I learned about her history in reading a fascinating profile in the New Yorker, under the headline “Ophelia Dahl’s National Health Service.” And the piece also gave me my word of the week, precipitous. Here is how the adjective appeared, in a direct quote from Dahl.

“Ebola was ‘acute on chronic.’ That’s what they call it when someone has smoker’s lung, and then suddenly something precipitous happens, like pneumonia.”

Of course, I knew that precipitous meant something that happens quickly without thought or careful consideration. But I knew nothing of the etymology of the word and was anxious to learn it.

The word dates back to the mid-17th century and comes from an obsolete French term, précipiteux, which in turn comes from from the Latin praecepspraecip(it), meaning  ‘steep, headlong.’  I took a year of Latin in high school. If only I’d paid more attention.

An earlier version of this post first appeared on my blog on Dec 13/17.

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