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 formspre·de·scent, nounre·de·scent, noun
Can be confuseddecent 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.

Popular references

—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).
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 Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2019

Examples from the Web for descent

Contemporary Examples of descent

Historical Examples of descent

  • She is not able to determine the exact line of her descent, but the blood of three races mingles in her veins.

    Twelve Years a Slave

    Solomon Northup

  • If they had not done so the descent would have been impossible.

  • On the turn of the hill he proposed to stop, although he must have known that the descent was easy.

    The Velvet Glove

    Henry Seton Merriman

  • From the south side the descent, though wearisome, is feasible.

    Our Italy

    Charles Dudley Warner

  • It is much to be regretted that the descent was ever allowed to take place.

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

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

Medicine definitions for descent




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