Open Dictionary word of the week: acclivity

Posted by on July 26, 2012

acclivity (noun)

an old word meaning a rising slope

Thence, the land rises by a gentle acclivity, on which the ancient barony of Ogilvie is situated.

(Submitted from India)

Most submissions to the Open Dictionary are of words and phrases that have recently entered the language, or recently become widely used enough for people to notice them. Occasionally, though, someone will submit a word that is far from new but  for some reason or other hasn’t been included in Macmillan Dictionary. Learners’ dictionaries have traditionally focussed their efforts on explaining the core of the language well rather than including as many words as possible, and a word like acclivity is never going to make the cut; although with the unlimited capacity of online dictionaries coverage may well start to widen significantly.

Acclivity caught my eye because it’s one of these old words. I don’t know why the person who submitted it did so; perhaps he or she just likes the sound of it. Etymologically it comes from Latin acclivitas meaning ‘upward inclination’,  which itself comes from acclivis, which is a combination of ad- (towards) and clivis (a slope). The first citation given in the OED dates back to 1614, though there are also citations from the 1990s. There are not that many instances of it in the corpus, especially once you strip out the ones that are simply explanations of its meaning. It likes to combine with adjectives:

It is delightfully situated on a bold acclivity, one mile e. from the church.
Behind the house, the ground, formerly sheep pasture, but now enclosed, rises with a gentle acclivity to the bottom of the Wester ‘Spittal Hill…
After having ascended another steep acclivity, we reached, at half-past eight, the last of the great platforms, bounded on the right by the highest part of the Dome…

Acclivity has a pair, declivity, meaning a downward slope (though I do wonder about this – surely whether something is an upward or downward slope depends entirely on where you are standing?), also dating from the 17th century. I then got to wondering about another word ending in -clivity, proclivity, which is in Macmillan Dictionary, defined as ‘a tendency to want to do a particular thing, especially something bad’. At first I was puzzled as to how this could have anything to do with slopes, but it does indeed come from the Latin pro- (forward, down) and clivis (a slope).  This fits in rather well with the idea of proclivities generally being towards something bad, as it suggests the idea of the slippery slope, the headlong and helpless rush towards the bottom.

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