precipitate, precipitous
1. The two words overlap in meaning and were used interchangeably from the 17c to the 19c. Precipitous has a physical meaning ‘sheer like a precipice’:

• There was a precipitous wooden stair to the ground floor —A. Craig, 1990.

In its abstract sense it is concerned with the over-rapid progress of an action and retains the notion of steep descent, and is therefore often found in the company of words such as decline

• (A number of factors might be responsible for such a precipitous decline —A. Wilentz, 1989)

whereas precipitate is concerned rather with the inception of an action and means rather ‘hasty, rash, inconsiderate’ or ‘headlong, violently hurried’:

• His precipitate action was clearly calculated to make life harder rather than easier for the PLO as he abandoned responsibility for civil servants in the West Bank. —D. McDowell, 1990

• One can't help wondering whether rumours of his precipitate departure might not be wishful thinking —Sunday Herald, 2001.

It is in this second set of meanings that the two words come closest, since any action that is precipitate in its inception is likely to be precipitous in its performance or consequences.
2. Of the corresponding adverbs, precipitously encroaches on precipitately, especially in AmE:

• I left precipitously because I didn't want to work there any longer —A. Cross, AmE 1986

(precipitately is wanted)

• Angus had precipitately fled on learning that the king was loose and in vengeful mood —J. Burke, 1990.

Modern English usage. 2014.

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Precipitous — Pre*cip i*tous, a. [L. praeceps, cipitis: cf. OF. precipiteux. See {Precipice}.] 1. Steep, like a precipice; as, a precipitous cliff or mountain. [1913 Webster] 2. Headlong; as, precipitous fall. [1913 Webster] 3. Hasty; rash; quick; sudden;… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • precipitous — UK US /prɪˈsɪpɪtəs/ adjective ► if a reduction is precipitous, it happens very suddenly and is very big: a precipitous decline/drop/fall »The company has seen a precipitous decline in advertising revenue. ► done too quickly without thinking… …   Financial and business terms

  • precipitous — index impulsive (rash), precipitate Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • precipitous — (adj.) 1640s, rash, headlong, from obsolete Fr. precipiteux (16c.), from V.L. *praecipitosus, from praecipitare (see PRECIPITATION (Cf. precipitation)). Related: Precipitously. Precipitate (adj.) hasty is attested from 1650s …   Etymology dictionary

  • precipitous — *steep, abrupt, sheer Analogous words: soaring, towering, rocketing, ascending, rising (see RISE) …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • precipitous — ► ADJECTIVE 1) dangerously high or steep. 2) (of a change in a condition or situation) sudden and dramatic. 3) hasty; precipitate. DERIVATIVES precipitously adverb …   English terms dictionary

  • precipitous — [prē sip′ə təs, prisip′ə təs] adj. [MFr precipiteux < LL * precipitosus < L praeceps: see PRECIPICE] 1. steep like a precipice; sheer 2. having precipices 3. PRECIPITATE SYN. STEEP1 precipitously adv. precipitousne …   English World dictionary

  • precipitous — [[t]prɪsɪ̱pɪtəs[/t]] 1) ADJ GRADED: usu ADJ n A precipitous slope or drop is very steep and often dangerous. The town is perched on the edge of a steep, precipitous cliff. Derived words: precipitously ADV GRADED usu ADV after v, also ADV adj The… …   English dictionary

  • precipitous — adjective Etymology: French précipiteux, from Middle French, from Latin precipitium precipice Date: 1646 1. precipitate 2 2. a. very steep, perpendicular, or overhanging in rise or fall < a precipitous slope > b. having precipitous sides < a… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • precipitous — adjective a) Steep, like a precipice; as, a precipitous cliff or mountain. ...humans have been responsible for a precipitous decline of elephants, from perhaps 300,000 in the early 1970s to some 10,000 today. b) Headlong; as, precipitous fall …   Wiktionary

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