Q: I’ve always thought “decadent” describes the careless and cavalier waste of resources. But a friend of mine says the root of the word is decay, as in drugs, tattoos, piercings, and angry music. Tell me he’s wrong and I’m right!
A: You’re both right.
The adjective “decadent” is ultimately derived from the classical Latin verb decadēre (to decay). However, it’s generally used now to describe the moral decay that leads to self-indulgence and cultural decline.
One sign of our own moral decay, for example, is an unrestrained fondness for buttercream frosting.
When the adjective showed up in English in the early 19th century, it referred to “a state of decay or decline; falling off or deteriorating from a prior condition of excellence, vitality, prosperity, etc.,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest example in the OED is from The French Revolution: A History (1837), by Thomas Carlyle: “Those decadent ages in which no Ideal either grows or blossoms?”
However, the noun “decadence” showed up much earlier in The Complaynt of Scotlande, a 1549 book by Robert Wedderburn that argues against the uniting of Scotland and England: “My triumphant stait is succumbit in decadens.”
This later example of the noun is from The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith’s 1762 collection of letters ostensibly written by a Chinese traveler commenting on British society:
“Every day produces some pathetic exclamation upon the decadence of taste and genius.”
The adjective “decadent” is a back formation from the noun “decadence.” (A back formation is a word formed by dropping a real or imagined part from another word.)
English borrowed the noun from the French décadence, which in turn was derived from the medieval Latin decadentia. The original classical Latin verb, decadēre, is made up of de- (down) plus cadēre (to fall).
In looking into the history of “decadent” and “decadence,” we came across an interesting usage note at Merriam-Webster Online. We’ll break it up into several paragraphs to make it easier to read on our website:
“To be decadent is to be in the process of decay, so a powerful nation may be said to be in a decadent stage if its power is fading. But the word is more often used to speak of moral decay.
“Ever since the Roman empire, we’ve tended to link Rome’s fall to the moral decay of its ruling class, who indulged in extreme luxuries and unwholesome pleasures while providing the public with cruel spectacles such as the slaughter of the gladiators.
“But not everyone agrees on what moral decadence looks like (or even how it might have hastened the fall of Rome), though most people think it involves too many sensual pleasures—as, for instance, among the French and English poets and artists of the 1880s and ’90s called the Decadents.
“These days, for some reason, people have decided decadent is the way to describe rich chocolate cakes.”
The use of “decadent” for a chocolate cake seems to be relatively new. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a 1978 item in Cue magazine about the “Decadent Chocolate Cake ($1.25 a slice) that’s appropriately named” at the Silver Palate food store in Manhattan.