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[dih-sent] /dɪˈsɛnt/
the act, process, or fact of moving from a higher to a lower position.
Synonyms: falling, sinking; fall, drop.
a downward inclination or slope.
a passage or stairway leading down.
derivation from an ancestor; lineage; extraction.
any passing from higher to lower in degree or state; decline.
a sudden raid or hostile attack.
Law. transmission of real property by intestate succession.
Origin of descent
1300-50; Middle English < Anglo-French, Old French descente, derivative of descendre to descend, modeled on such pairs as vente, vendre
Related forms
predescent, noun
redescent, noun
Can be confused
decent, descent, dissent.
Word story
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.
Related Quotations
“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) Unabridged
Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2018.
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Examples from the Web for descent
Contemporary Examples
Historical Examples
  • To make up for his indiscretion, K. suggested a descent to the river.

    K Mary Roberts Rinehart
  • Our journey must now be compared to the descent from cloud-land in a balloon.

    The Roof of France Matilda Betham-Edwards
  • Traces of the French descent which the widow boasted of were apparent in Winnie too.

    The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad
  • His descent into the street was like the descent into a slimy aquarium from which the water had been run off.

    The Secret Agent Joseph Conrad
  • I continued the descent, and crossed the creek to where the unfortunate Tulp was waiting for me.

    In the Valley Harold Frederic
British Dictionary definitions for descent


the act of descending
a downward slope or inclination
a passage, path, or way leading downwards
derivation from an ancestor or ancestral group; lineage
(in genealogy) a generation in a particular lineage
a decline or degeneration
a movement or passage in degree or state from higher to lower
(often foll by on) a sudden and overwhelming arrival or attack
(property law) (formerly) the transmission of real property to the heir on an intestacy
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition
© William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins
Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
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Word Origin and History for descent

c.1300, from Old French descente "descent, descendance, lineage," formed from descendre (see descend) on analogy of French nouns such as attente from attendre "to expect," vente "sale" from vendre "to sell," pente "slope" from pendre "to hang" (the etymological English word from Latin would be *descence).

Figurative use is from late 14c. Meaning "action of descending," also "a downward slope" is from 1590s. Meaning "act of descending from an ancestor" is from mid-14c. Evolutionary sense is from 1859 in Darwin, though there are uses which suggest essentially the same thing going back to 1630s.

Online Etymology Dictionary, © 2010 Douglas Harper
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descent in Medicine

descent de·scent (dĭ-sěnt')

  1. The process of descending or falling down from a higher position.

  2. The passage of the presenting part of the fetus into and through the birth canal.

The American Heritage® Stedman's Medical Dictionary
Copyright © 2002, 2001, 1995 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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