Today, we associate luxury with wealth, opulence, and indulgence, but the word originally meant “sexual desire,” or plain and unadorned “lust.”
Luxury is first recorded in English in 1340 and comes to us from French, one of those words imported by the Normans when they conquered England in 1066. The earliest known English use is found in the Ayenbite of Inwyt, a confessional text copied by a Kentish monk in 1340. It’s a translation of the French Somme le Roi, a very popular book in its day:
Þet uerste heaued of þe beste of helle: ys prede. Þet oþer is enuie. þe þridde wreþe. þe uerþe sleauþe þet me clepeþ ine clergie: accidye. þe vifte icinge. in clergie auarice. oþer couaytise. þe zixte glotounye. þe zeuende lecherie oþer luxurie.
(The first head of the beast of hell is pride. The next is envy. The third wrath. The fourth sloth, that we in the clergie call accidie. The fifth greed, in the clergy avarice or covetousness. The sixth is gluttony. The seventh lechery or luxury.)
Luxury is ultimately from the Latin luxuria, meaning “extravagance, excess.” The ancient Romans used luxuria to emphasize riotous living and sinful waste; if they wanted a more neutral term to mean simply wealth and splendor, they tended to use the word luxus, although that word could carry the more extravagant sense too.
By the time the luxuria had filtered down from Latin into Norman-French, the Norman noun luxure had taken on the meaning of lust, lechery. The Normans even had a verb, luxurier or luscurier, which meant to fornicate. It was this sexual meaning that was adopted into English.
The sense of luxury meaning “wealth, splendor, opulence” doesn’t appear until the early seventeenth century. Joseph Addison in his 1705 Remarks on Several Parts of Italy writes:
He has cut the Side of the Rock into a Flat for a Garden, and [...] has made such a Spot of Ground of it as furnishes out a kind of Luxury for a Hermite.
Since this modern English sense is closer to the original Latin meaning, it is probably the result of people reinterpreting the word to reflect the old meaning. Most literate people of the time also knew Latin and would have been familiar with how classical writers used the word. It is this sense that survives today, and luxury has lost whatever sexual connotations it once had.
“luxuria,” “luxus,” A Latin Dictionary, Lewis and Short, Oxford University Press, 1879.
“luxure,” “luxurier,” “luxurius,” The Anglo-Norman Dictionary, www.anglo-norman.net, 2008.
“luxury, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton