We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out moreJump to Main NavigationJump to Content
  • Text size: A
  • A

downfall, n.

Forms:  see down- prefix   and fall n.2(Show Less)
Frequency (in current use): 
Origin: Formed within English, by derivation. Etymons: down- prefix, fall n.2

 a. The decline of a person or thing from a position of high standing to one of ruin; ignominy, defeat, or obsolescence; a loss of power, prosperity, or status.

a1400  (a1325)    Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 11362   Þis child..Sal be to fel men in dun fall, And to fell in vprising.
1538   Prymer in Eng. after Vse of Sarum sig. Qviii   Dauid..doth fyrst as it were in a songe recorde and expresse his great deieccyon & downefal.
1595   Shakespeare Henry VI, Pt. 3 v. vi. 65   Such as seeke the downefall of our house.
1646   N. Gibbon Reconciler 12   If ever the tide turne; men will rejoyce at their downfall and laugh when their feare commeth.
1667   Milton Paradise Lost i. 116   That were an ignominy and shame beneath This downfall .  
1750   Johnson Rambler No. 60. ⁋2   Histories of the downfal of kingdoms.
1790   T. Lindsey Let. 24 Dec. (2012) II. 83   I think them [sc. Priestley's Letters to Burke] most admirable, and such as..by no other powder explosion but the force of truth bring on the downfall of our hierarchical powers.
1824   W. Irving Tales of Traveller II. 3   The downfall of his great expectations.
1899   Mind 8 474   The downfall of the European language of scholars, of neo-Latin.
1928   Jrnl. Polit. Econ. 36 576   Therefore it becomes the duty of every sincere Socialist to prepare for the downfall of capitalism.
1957   F. Chipperfield In Quest of Love vi. 161   His so-called betrayal of his class was followed by his so-called social downfall.
1979   Observer 21 Jan. 35/6   Duke Hsiang..accomplished the final downfall of his own dynasty in 638 bc by chivalrously refusing to attack an opposing army until it was properly marshalled.
2015   Radio Times (South/West ed.) 27 June 41/1   Winona Ryder plays the object of his love and the inadvertent cause of his downfall.

a1400—2015(Hide quotations)


 b. The cause of a decline in power, prosperity, or status; something or someone that brings about ruin or prevents the achievement of an ambition or success. Now also in weakened sense: something or someone a person is unable to resist; a weakness.

?1563   tr. Articles agreed by Archbysshops, & Bisshops .M.D.lxii sig. Aviiiv   For curious and carnall persons,..to haue continually before theyr eyes, the sentence of Gods predestination, is a most daungerous downfall, wherby the deuyll doth thrust them eyther into desperation, or into rechlesnes of most vncleane lyuyng.
1596   T. Lodge Wits Miserie 48   Plutarch reporting Hannibals follies at Cannas, holdeth Lust and effeminate pleasure to be the downfall of his fortunes.
1610   R. Gibbons tr. L. de la Puente Meditat. Myst. Holy Faith i. 295   As it is saide in Iob, my owne counsell is my downefall.
1677   C. Gibbes XXXI Serm. Stanford-Rivers xxiii. 348   They who forsake him should be forsaken by him; which must of necessity be their Downfall.
1718   J. D. Breval Play is Plot ii. i. 21   Ambition, Madam, Ambition; that which was the downfal of Cæsar.
1779   R. J. Sulivan Anal. Polit. Hist. India i. 5   That spark of liberty..was finally to be the downfall of oppression.
1826   G. L. Smyth Monuments & Genii St. Paul's Cathedral & Westm. Abbey I. 257   The death of Edward the III...was the downfall of Chaucer's fortune.
1848   C. E. Kells California 14   Pride has impoverished her [sc. Spain], and we doubt not in the end if stubbornness will be her downfall.
1891   ‘Amicus’ Let. 2 Aug. in Rep. Royal Comm. Chinese Gambling & Immorality (1892) (New S. Wales Parl., 1891–2) 49 286   Beware of these gentlemen, or they will be your downfall.
1910   in J. A. Lomax Cowboy Songs 292   Whiskey, you villain, You've been my downfall, You've kicked me, you've cuffed me, But I love you for all.
1958   Jrnl. Criminal Law, Criminol., & Police Sci. 49 194/1   Dr. Reinhardt skillfully avoids the extremes that have proved the downfall of many other investigators.
1993   G. Hardin Living within Limits (1995) xi. 102   There are times when we fear that the snowballing ‘information overload’ may be the downfall of civilization.
2017   Derbyshire Times (Nexis) 9 Feb.   I must admit, one of my downfalls is coleslaw—and the homemade variety at the Dog is simply sublime.

?1563—2017(Hide quotations)


 a. The action or fact of falling or descending from an elevated position, esp. by force of gravity; an instance of this.

a1525  (a1500)    Sc. Troy Bk. (Douce) l. 2691 in C. Horstmann Barbour's Legendensammlung (1882) II. 296   Sche..with ane suddane downe-fall Tham castis In-to mischeif all.
1530   Myroure Oure Ladye (Fawkes) (1873) iii. 298   The sonne knowyng no downe falle [L. occasum].
1606   S. Gardiner Doomes-Day Bk. iv. 27   The signes that keepe companie with the Iudgement, are 1. The obscuracion of the sunne. 2 The Eclipse and defect of the Moone. 3 The downefall of starres.
1674   N. Cox Gentleman's Recreation ii. 129   If she [sc. a hawk] miss at the first down-fall and kill not.
1700   M. Prior Carmen Sæculare 12   Is her daring Flight reclaim'd By Seas, from Icarus's Downfal nam'd?
1775   J. Lewis Serious Addr. Minister to People 41   Approach not the verge of the precipice, lest you meet a headlong downfall.
1865   W. S. Jevons Coal Quest. ii. 25   The upraisals, the downfalls, the dislocations,..which rocks have suffered.
1897   Harper's New Monthly Mag. Oct. 720/2   It is hard to tell whether the crust over which you pass is sufficiently stiff to support you from a downfall into fluid lava.
1922   T. J. J. See New Thory of Aether 250/2   Sir John Herschel was the first to suggest that the sunspot periodicity depends on the downfall of meteors upon the solar surface.
2008   P. Selgin Drowning Lessons 68   His literal downfall, tumbling back-first down the stairs to my storage room under an armload of shoes.

a1525—2008(Hide quotations)


 b. The action of falling to the ground from an upright position; (with reference to a person) an instance of falling over as a result of tripping, stumbling, etc.; (with reference to a building) the action of collapsing.

1556   N. Grimald tr. Cicero Thre Bks. Duties ii. f. 70   Seastormes, tempests, shipwracks, dounfalls, burnings.
1582   A. P. Compasse of Christian iv. 140   The downe fall of the wals of Ieryco.
1594   T. Bowes tr. P. de la Primaudaye French Acad. II. 493   Those that..runne on swiftly whither they please, without feare of downefalles.
1611   J. Florio Queen Anna's New World of Words   Trabocco, a downe-fall, a groueling on the ground.
1655   J. Howell 4th Vol. Familiar Lett. xxxvi. 85   If you take out but one stone it hazards the downfall of the whole Edifice.
1751   F. Coventry Hist. Pompey the Little x. 215   Three rotten Chairs and a half seemed to stand like Traps in various Parts of the Room, threatning Downfals to unwary Strangers.
1789   R. Twining Let. 30 Aug. in Sel. Papers Twining Family (1887) 193   I suppose you have heard from my brother of my downfall?.. A thundering overset—such as might have been felt, I conceive, at the Antipodes.
1858   H. W. Beecher & E. D. Proctor Life Thoughts 106   An oak tree for two hundred years grows solitary. It is bitterly handled by frosts; it is wrestled with by ambitious winds, determined to give it a downfall.
1880   M. Rae Hartleigh Towers I. v. 88   The downfall of one or two veteran trees left an open chink in the green tracery which framed the distant landscape.
1910   Univ. of Ottawa Rev. Oct. 5   The effect..can be shown by standing a row of dominoes on ends within a short distance of each other and then causing the end one to fall against its neighbor. The result will be the downfall of the whole row.
1965   Times 17 Aug. 3/1   Accurate spin bowling..brought the downfall of 20 wickets.
2014   Salt Lake Tribune (Nexis) 6 Aug.   Bryant said officials still were unsure Monday exactly what led to the tower's downfall, but she suspected it had to do with lightning or high winds and rain.

1556—2014(Hide quotations)


 c. A decrease in the amount, quantity, or extent of something; a reduction in price.

1654   E. Johnson Hist. New-Eng. xiii. 134   As yet Cowes and Cattell of that kinde were not come to the great downfall in their price.
1774   Ld. Kames Sketches Hist. Man I. i. iv. 75   There is here no downfal in the value of commodities, which cannot happen while the quantity and demand continue unvaried.
1830   J. Wilson Noctes Ambrosianæ lii, in Blackwood's Edinb. Mag. Nov. 848   Port wine tummled doon ever sae mony shillens the bottle..I remember hoo a' the middle-classes..at the first doonfa' o' the article, clapped their hauns, and swore to substitute port in place o' porter.
1874   Leeds Mercury 25 Aug. 4/4   Should the present agitation with the men result in a downfall of wages, the value of coal will also decline.
1917   Bull. Soc. Study of Social Consequences of War 3 33   In the second half-year the downfall in the number of births is even fully 5 % greater than from May to October.
1969   Financial Times 30 May 1/4   Carpets are one of the few areas to be experiencing a sharp downfall in consumer demand.
2015   P. Keizer Multidisciplinary Econ. viii. 241   In Shiller's world actors are irrational because they keep buying assets as if their prices will rise forever; they take the risk of facing a sudden downfall in the prices.

1654—2015(Hide quotations)


 3. A steep downward slope; an abyss, gulf.

1542   N. Udall tr. Erasmus Apophthegmes i. f. 135   Rockes of a down right pitche, or a stiepe down falle.
1586   T. Bowes tr. P. de la Primaudaye French Acad. I. 245   Beware thou tumble not into some downefall.
1594   R. Carew tr. J. Huarte Exam. Mens Wits v. 67   These..delight to walke..thorow dangerous and high places, and to approch neere steepe down-fals.
1606   R. Knolles tr. J. Bodin Six Bks. Common-weale vi. iv. 720   Vntill the tyranny of one, of few, or of many, be mounted to the highest precipice or downfall.
1691   Dryden King Arthur ii. i. 11   Dreadfull Downfalls of unheeded Rocks.
1822   J. Hogg Three Perils of Man I. 63   A bit downfa' to the south.
1916   C. M. Doughty Titans iii. 71   Bleak height of sacred snow; whose misty bergs, Stern solemn downfalls, fretted silent cliffs; Are fearful to Mans sense.
1925   E. C. Smith Mang Howes 2   Now, at lang last, the hinmaist doonfaa o the road brings ee oot richt at Bosells Green.
2013   T. Marsh Great Mountain Days in Pennines vi. 44   In places it [sc. the river Tees] meanders smoothly over a wide bed of rock; elsewhere it cascades forcefully with all the might of a major river over rocky downfalls.

1542—2013(Hide quotations)

 4. concr.

a. Something that has fallen down; a ruin, a piece of debris. Obsolete.

1575   J. Turler Traueiler ii. vii. 135   Of so great and renowmed a Citie as this hath bin, there remaineth now almost nothing, besides a fewe ruines and downfalles, wherin a few poore fishermen are now dwelling, with certeine Monumentes very auncient.
1596   W. Warner Albions Eng. (rev. ed.) xii. lxxiv. 303   On Auentine the down-fals are of Temples store to see.

1575—1596(Hide quotations)


 b. U.S. As a mass noun: fallen trees, branches, etc.

1969   Field & Stream Sept. 80/2   Jackpine thickets so choked with downfall I could walk 300 yards or farther without stepping on the ground.
1999   G. Wuerthner Olympic: Visitor's Compan. 212   Stubby tail, brown body with barring on belly. Distribution. Dense forests, among downfall, and dense riparian vegetation.
2013   B. M. Willis Trout Adventures: N. Amer. 115   The final four miles up the mountain to Lightning Lake had no trail and the area was filled with downfall and boulders.

1969—2013(Hide quotations)


a. A torrent or cascade of water, esp. one falling from a height as part of a river or stream; a waterfall. Obsolete.

1578   G. Best True Disc. Passage to Cathaya iii. 22   A greate downefall of water, whyche they imagine to be thereaboutes.
1596   W. Smith Chloris sig. B4   Those downfals which from mine eies were sent.
1612   J. Speed Theatre of Empire of Great Brit. iv. v. 145/2   A great downfall of water, termed The Salmon-Leap.
1698   tr. L. Hennepin New Discov. in Amer. vii. 30   This wonderful Downfal, is compounded of two great Cross-streams of Water, and two Falls, with an Isle sloping along the middle of it.
1707   Contempl. Changes of Human Life vii. 35   As one Born near the downfalls of Nilus, becomes Deaf to the sound of those Waters.
1867   W. H. Smyth & E. Belcher Sailor's Word-bk.   Downfalls, the descending waters of rivers and creeks.
1908   Strand Mag. May 531/1   He reached the spot of tranquility under and inside the downfall.

1578—1908(Hide quotations)


 b. Brit. A fall of precipitation from the sky as rain, snow, or hail, esp. when sudden and heavy; a downpour; (also) the fallen water amassing through this process.

1603   R. Knolles Gen. Hist. Turkes 31   The riuer Melas..in Winter or any other great downefall of water, right suddenly ouerfloweth his bankes.
1642   C. Vermuyden Disc. Drayning Great Fennes 7   There is a generall Rule of Drayning and gaining of drowned Lands, which is by imbanking all the Rivers on each side, and by leading away the Downefall by Draines and Sluices.
1690   C. Ness Compl. Hist. & Myst. Old & New Test. I. 126   The dreadful downfal, as well as up-rise, of the waters.
1799   Lett. & Papers Agric. (Bath & West of Eng. Soc.) IX. xv. 155   This ground being overrun by streams of water from the street, farm-yards, &c. upon every down-fall of rain, it is rendered so prolific as to bear four crops a year.
1834   W. S. Roscoe Poems 154   Thunder peals, Tremendous downfall, and the earth beneath Trembles in dread.
1870   E. Peacock Ralf Skirlaugh III. 17   The weatherwise..said there would soon be ‘downfall’; but no rain came.
1901   W. W. Smith New Test. in Braid Scots James v. 17   Elijah..wi' mickle prayer prayed he that thar soud be nae doonfa' ; and thar was nae weet on the grun' for thrie year and a hauf.
1930   Manch. Guardian 29 May 16/3   A terrific downfall of hailstones as big as pipe bowls..was confined to the farm of Mr. Chas. Goodwin.
1962   Rep. Med. Officer (Flintshire County Council) 121   January, 1962, will be remembered for the intense cold, accompanied by heavy downfalls of snow and prolonged frost.
2000   A. Taylor Where Roses Fade (2003) xliv. 311   First came a few scattered but heavy drops. He put on speed, hoping to reach the Bull before the worst of the downfall.

1603—2000(Hide quotations)


 6. Any of various types of trap designed to kill or capture prey by falling on or over the animal; esp. a deadfall (deadfall n. 1a). Now rare.

1856   C. J. Andersson Lake Ngami 528   To destroy the hippopotamus..by means of the downfall..consisting of a log of wood.
1858   R. K. Philp Corner Cupboard 116/1   The down-fall is an excellent method of capturing birds required for the cage, as it does them no injury.
1882   Hunter & Angler 31   The stake [of a snare] should be squared on two sides, and fitted to a deep shoulder in the spindle, as it is more likely to turn out of position than when used with the downfall.
1986   S. Afr. Archaeol. Bull. 41 79/2   A line was attached to the downfall that, when tripped by a trundling hippo..snapped the line so that the large point of the downfall descended.

1856—1986(Hide quotations)




 C1. General attributive, with the sense ‘that is falling or has fallen down, descending’.

1791   J. Smeaton Narr. Edystone Lighthouse §259   Protecting it..from the entrance of the downfall spray.
1908   Hutchinson (Kansas) Daily News 25 Sept. 7/3   For Sale—Downfall apples cheap, one mile south of State Reformatory.
2004   R. Cotton Guns of Wolf Valley ii. 14   He looked around wildly and found a heavy five-foot-long length of downfall spruce lying on the ground.
2013   M. Spencer Clingmans Dome iv. 70   Fierce mountain winds and heavy layers of ice can topple trees, leaving a jungle of downfall debris.

1791—2013(Hide quotations)


  downfall water   n. now rare water that has fallen in the form of rain.

1682   in T. Badeslade Hist. Anc. & Present State Navigation King's-Lyn (1725) (modernized text) App. 131   The..downfall Waters are stopped by these Brooks running high.
1722   T. Yarborough Let. 19 Nov. in Early Hist. Don Navigation (1965) 55   This must be of great servise to Sir Geo. to carry of the downfall water so quick from his estates, but a hardship to his neibers below.
1808   C. Vancouver Gen. View Agric. Devon xi. 285   By these drains the downfal waters would immediately escape.
1871   Lloyd's Weekly Newspaper 12 Feb. 5/1   The downfall water runs so rapidly into rivers and streams during the winter season, that they are utterly dry and parched, even in the beginning of the summer.
1956   H. C. Darby Draining of Fens (ed. 2) iv. 145   There were still many complaints of flodding by downfall water.

1682—1956(Hide quotations)


This entry has been updated (OED Third Edition, December 2018).

In this entry:

In other dictionaries: