In a Word: A Bit of Decadence

Today’s decadence was yesteryear’s decay.

chocolate sundae

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Commercials for chocolates, candies, and other desserts often draw on the language of over-indulgence: Treat yourself, they say, to more flavor than you deserve, to a bit of culinary extravagance, even to the point of a little guilty gluttony. Give in to decadence.

Such an appeal would be shocking to someone from just 150 years ago. Because why would someone want to eat something that is decaying?

Decadence traces back to the Latin decidere “a falling away” — from de- “off, away” + cadere “to fall.” (Decidere is also the source of deciduous, what we call trees whose leaves fall off every fall.) Decidere became the Medieval Latin decadentia, which became, in the early 15th century, the French décadence. Decadence, when it found its way from French into English writings (sans l’accent aigu) in the mid-16th century, referred to a “falling away” from a healthier or purer state — not exactly the decay of death, but a type of decay nonetheless.

In the mid-1800s, decadence was commonly used to criticize fine art. With the rise of Romanticism, the “shocking” lack of detail of Impressionism, and an overall shift toward abstraction, many art critics decried the failing state of fine art since the “purity” of Michelangelo and Raphael, calling these new styles decadent — an adjective back-formed from decadence.

And that perhaps might have been the beginning of the end for the “decaying” sense of decadence. At the turn of the century, the art movements labeled as “decadent” were becoming more popular, both commercially and critically. The sense of “decay” was still there in the word, and decadence still had an overall negative connotation, but floating on top of that negativity was a sense of desirability as well.

More and more, a decadence was becoming a guilty pleasure — and then the guilt itself started to fade into metaphor. By the 1970s, advertising agencies latched on to the sense that something decadent was a little bit bad in one sense but also very good in another more important sense, and we started seeing those ads for “decadent desserts.”

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Pretty interesting word origin here. I never thought of it having an origin to the very negative ‘decaying’. Still, I was surprised there wasn’t a connection to the word ‘decade’ since decadence contains it.


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