Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor

Episode 61: Decade of Decadence

This week's topic comes to us from a question sent in by Jasmine from Dallas, TX:
I am quite confused about the usage of the word decadent. I think it means extravagant and luxurious but whenever I use it in that sense, my mother always tells me that that word is used to describe something that is deteriorating. Which one of us is right, and if both of us are, which meaning is used more often?

This is a good question — the usage of the word decadent is a pretty complex matter.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, The word decadent comes from the noun form of decadence — a word defined as "the process of falling away or declining from a state of excellence, vitality, or prosperity; decay, deterioration."

It can also mean "a luxurious self-indulgence." The Oxford Dictionary of Current English defines decadent as "having low moral standards and being interested only in pleasure."

So to answer the question, it's both. Decadence does mean decay or deterioration, but it refers to larger things like societies, cultures, movements and so on. If there's a house that's in a dilapidated condition, you probably wouldn't refer to it as decadent. There needs to be some element of self-indulgence, or lack of moral fortitude that contributed to the condition.

One approach to understanding this is to look at it from a French perspective. The word decadence comes to English from French, where the word also refers to the decline of something. Breaking the word down to its French parts, cadence is the French word for rhythm, and décadence means essentially "breaking rhythm." So something that was on the rise for quite some time may have had a rhythm going; when that rhythm breaks, the whole thing starts to decay.

Keeping things in the French realm, just before the French Revolution, the monarchy was already in decline. Consider the self-indulgent lifestyle of the monarchy at that time: excesses of food, wine and good times. The monarchy's enormous palace at Versailles: acres of gardens; vast halls of mirrors; paintings; sculptures; chandeliers; all of these things indicated extravagant self-indulgence. They were luxurious ... but not in a good way.

Nowadays Versailles is certainly a treasure of history, but in its heyday, it was truly decadent. It's no wonder that after the monarchy fell, the citizens smashed the interior to bits.

Looking at decadence from a music perspective, some people dislike jazz because the musicians frequently play outside established scales.

Finally, in popular culture, decadent has been embraced by journalists and copywriters to describe—among other things—rich foods, chocolatey desserts, or anything else that could be easily be described as indulgent.

Seeing the word "decadent" in print alongside images of such desserts or hearing the word voiced-over on TV while a fork plunges into fluffy mounds of chocolate cake slathered in rich, creamy, chocolate icing, one can easily extend the connection between decadent and "extravagant" or "luxurious."

There's no easy way to tell which use occurs more frequently — but since dictionaries describe the language as the majority of people use it, it's best to stick with decadent as meaning "declining" or "self-indulgent" and use other words like "extravagant" or "opulent" to describe luxurious items or behaviors.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English; Oxford English Dictionary.

Music from this Episode: "Hunger Strike" by Temple of the Dog; "La Valse D'Amélie" by Yann Tiersen; "Family" by Young Jazz Giants; "Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove" by Dead Can Dance.

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