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The word decline has a number of meanings. It is derived from Latin element dē-, 'aside' or 'away from', and the verbal element clīnāre (Greek κλίνειν), 'to bend'. The root meaning is 'to turn away from [the straight path]'. Some of the English meanings which may be the most useful to students nowadays are listed below, with some related words. There are also several archaic usages.

  • The verb 'to decline' means:
    • 'to become less' - active, powerful and so on. This may be said of
      • an individual: the process of ageing is often called 'entering the declining years';
      • an organization - the Spanish Empire was said to have declined from the inflation caused by South American gold in the 16th and 17th centuries;
      • more abstract notions, such as markets, ideas, etc - church attendance is declining in the United Kingdom, and the market in footwarmers has declined since the widespread adoption of central heating.
    • In astronomy, surveying and similar fields, 'to decline', which was formerly more used than it is now, was 'to have declination': a deviation from a standard reference location, usually the vertical, or, for heavenly bodies, the equator or meridian. (Donne talks of an ideal world as being "Without sharp north, without declining west" ('The Good Morrow', Songs and Sonets, 1650).)
    • Similarly, the declination of a magnetic compass was its departure from a true reading of North and South, usually caused by some ferrous material in its location. The compass was said 'to decline [so many] degrees from the North'. This is usually called the variation nowadays.
      • (More archaically, the compass 'declined' as the needle dipped below the horizontal plane.)
    • Transitively, 'to decline' means 'to turn away', or 'to avoid' something: one may 'decline combat' by running away, or someone in authority may 'decline to discuss' a matter with a junior, ~ regard the matter as decided by nature of the superior power.
    • This became almost synonymous with (but gentler than) 'to refuse': 'to say no to [an invitation or offer, etc]': if the Trojans had declined the wooden horse that the Greeks left them, they would not have been defeated.
      • Specifically, in the game of chess, a player may decline a gambit, in other words refuse to accept an easy capture which the opponent has offered as a trap.
      • A polite way of turning down an invitation is to say "I must regretfully decline...".
    • In the study of grammar, to decline a noun or adjective is to list, or tabulate, all its inflections, for such things as number, gender and case. In languages which are more inflected than English, such as Latin and [[Greek}], nouns are grouped into different Declension - conjugation|declension]]s according to the pattern of their inflections.
  • The noun 'a decline', again, has several meanings, connected to the verbal meanings above. It may help you if you think of the basic meaning as being 'a downward slope', or more figuratively, 'a deterioration', 'a getting worse'. This may be:
    • in health, particularly, in the past, of those wasting diseases which could not be cured but led to gradual weakness and death, like tuberculosis, or progressive paralysis;
      • in the similar progression of life - 'the decline of life' is a similar phrase to 'the declining years' mentioned above;
    • heavenly bodies, particularly the sun, are in a decline as they appear to move down the sky towards their setting;
    • earthly powers may experience a decline, as with all the great empires of the past - note the titles of two books,
      • Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788), and
      • Spengler's The Decline of the West (originally published in German as Der Untergang des Abendlandes) (1918-1923), where Abendlandes may be translated as 'evening states' - i.e. those towards the west
    • in economics, business and related areas, a decline is a reduction, or lowering, usually in money terms, but sometimes such other concepts as 'market share' - there may be "a decline in wages in real terms" during a period of inflation; or "a decline in investment in these difficult times".
    • To go into a decline may be to enter a period of increasingly degenerative illness, or some figurative equivalent. Some families use it to describe the mood swings (downwards) of a small child.