Origin: 1300–50; Middle English Related forms
< Anglo-French, Old French descente,
derivative of descendre
, modeled on such pairs as vente, vendre
Descent has been in the English language since the 14th century. The French word from which it descends, descendre, ultimately comes from a Latin term whose literal meaning is “to climb” (scandre) “down” (de-).
Though the word descent has been around for over half a millennium, some of its early senses are still in use. In the 1330s one use of descent described familial ancestry. Darwin popularized and expanded this term in Victorian England with his study of the origins of humans and our simian relatives from a common ancestor. This sense is very familiar to speakers of current English who have studied natural history. We also often hear descent in the context of ancestry such as “African descent” or “Scandinavian descent.” Another early use describes an object moving from a higher position to a lower position. Today, we still use this sense when talking about the downward movement of an airplane as it prepares to land. In religious contexts, one might hear about the Descent of Christ into Hell, a sense first appropriated in the 19th century.
Be careful not to confuse descent with decent. While it’s easy to leave out just one “s,” people are sure to express dissent (another word not to be confused with descent) with your diction.
—Descent from the Cross: A biblical scene popularly depicted in art, of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus removing Christ from the cross after being crucified.
—The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex: Charles Darwin's book on evolutionary theory, first published in 1871.
—“The Descent”: A brief lyric poem by William Carlos Williams, first published in 1948.
—The Descent: A science-fiction novel by Jeff Long, published in 1999.
—The Descent: A British horror film, released in 2005 (with no relation to the novel of the same name).
“I lay awake awhile, watching the ascent of the sparks through the firs, and sometimes their descent in half-extinguished cinders on my blanket.“
—Henry David Thoreau, The Maine Woods (1864)
“Under our feet there opened a horrible well. My uncle was so delighted that he actually clapped his hands—as he saw how steep and sharp was the descent.“
—Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth (1872)
“His guilt and his descent appear, by your account, to be the same…for I have heard you accuse him of nothing worse than of being the son of Mr. Darcy’s steward.“
—Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
“Everywhere we look we see brutality, stupidity, until it seems that there is nothing else to be seen but that—a descent into barbarism, everywhere, which we are unable to check.“
—Doris May Lessing, Prisons We Choose to Live Inside (1986)