A tumble down a cliff, with a splash at the bottom. The little sound of sip surely gives way to the impression of slip, and most of the rest of the word is morphological packing chips, standard affixes. Before the leap, suitably enough, is pre (though it does not actually mean “before” here); then it slips and bounces twice with cipitous, and, after that sickening slight pause, there is the sound of hitting the water. If the word looks like precipice – cliff – it should; if it looks like precipitation – stuff that falls – it should. But it’s not usually used for rain or rock faces; rather, it is a characteristic of events, be it walking without intention into an open house and on the spot making an offer with a 30-day closing, or giving birth within two hours of the onset of labour, or simply dropping 20% in value over a few days. Like so many longer English words, this one comes from Latin, rooted in praeceps, which meant headlong or sheer – or precipitous. The figurative sense was around even then – and it was surely needed, given the political movements of the Romans.

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