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Please help me with the words 'descent', 'ancestry', and 'lineage'. Dictionaries show that they are loosely the same:

1a. He has German descent.
1b. He is of German descent.
2a. He has German ancestry.
2b. He is of German ancestry.
3a. He has German lineage.
3b. He is of German lineage.

Could they be all the same, or are there subtle differences only known to native speakers?

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3 Answers 3

There are differences. "Lineage" is the most specific of the three terms. It would be unusual to use "lineage" to mean simply ethnic identity, such as "German lineage." Rather, it refers to traceable lines of familial descent from particular ancestors, usually prestigious ones such as royalty or nobility: "My lineage goes back to the Mayflower"; "He is of Hapsburg lineage."

"Descent" is more general. "She is of Norwegian descent" simply means that her ethnic make-up is predominantly, though not necessarily entirely, Norwegian.

"Ancestry" is the converse of "descent." Ancestors have descendants. So to say "She is of Norwegian descent" implies "She has Norwegian ancestry."

However, "descent" and "ancestry" aren't precisely equivalent in common usage. Typically, "She is of Norwegian descent" indicates a predominance of Norwegian ancestors. "She has Norwegian ancestry" simply means that one or more of her forebears were Norwegian. It doesn't necessarily mean that Norwegian ancestors predominate in her lineage.

So "lineage" is the most specific, "ancestry" the least. And in idiomatic English, one usually says somebody is of a particular lineage/descent, and has a particular ancestry.

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As far as I know, of the words ancestry and lineage, lineage is most suitable as noun and it defines the origin sequence of an ancestor, ancestry or pedigree.

Ancestry, on the other hand, is for the evolutionary or genetic line of descent (mostly used for plants and animals).

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But it's not defining the sequence here, we're only told there's at least one German in there somewhere. –  Jon Hanna Feb 4 '13 at 10:05
    
yes i agree with your comment & fr sure your answer is perfect i was not able to describe it with example i understand the difrence very well :) –  Sunishtha Singh Feb 4 '13 at 10:20
    
Sunishtha, please use proper capitalization and avoid SMS when answering on this site. –  J.R. Feb 4 '13 at 10:26
    
@J.R. ok i will tc while posting and answering next time. ty –  Sunishtha Singh Feb 4 '13 at 10:38
    
@Sunishtha: I don't know whether to laugh or cry. :^) Very funny! –  J.R. Feb 4 '13 at 10:50

They mean the same thing, they just do so in slightly different ways.

We get this sense of descent from talking about the fact that he is a descendant of someone who is German. He is descended from them.

We get this sense of ancestry from talking about the fact that he has one or more German ancestors.

We get this sense of lineage, by talking about the fact that there is a line of descent from him to one or more Germans.

So they all have different reasons for meaning what they do, but they all amount to the same thing.

Lineage is the rarer of the three. If you are talking about knowledge of that exact line (as you would in terms of aristocratic titles, or genealogical research [or pedigree if he's a dog or racehorse, rather than a person]) then it would be the best as the only of the three that relates directly to that. Otherwise, one of the other two would be more commonly used, and probably advisable, though the last isn't incorrect.

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From ODO on descendant: "The correct spelling for the noun meaning ‘person descended from a particular ancestor’ is descendant, not -ent. Descendent is a less common adjective meaning ‘descending from an ancestor’. Almost 15 per cent of the citations for the term in the Oxford English Corpus use the wrong spelling." –  Andrew Leach Feb 4 '13 at 10:23
    
@AndrewLeach I see M-W lists -ent as a variant for both the noun and the adjective, without any warnings. Since I use the -ant variant myself I'm removing the comment on the spelling variant, but I'm not completely confident it isn't reasonable to consider it accepted, either. –  Jon Hanna Feb 4 '13 at 10:30
    
Another difference between American English and British English, then. I was taught a noun uses -ant, (eg dependant, dependent). –  Andrew Leach Feb 4 '13 at 10:32
    
@AndrewLeach perhaps that's it, indeed. –  Jon Hanna Feb 4 '13 at 11:43

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