Walpole editorial | What’s in a word? By Justine Picardie
The meaning of luxury is evolving. Justine Picardie looks at its etymology, from lust and guilt to today’s need for stillness and contemplation.
I am writing this at the beginning of January, beneath the weight of a dark grey sky, but at my desk, the heady scent of unfurling petals of indoor narcissus is a welcome reminder of spring. These hopeful flowers seem to me to be the height of luxury on a winter’s day, as are the graceful white orchids that are growing in a plant pot alongside my computer, and the feel of a soft silken blouse against my skin. Scent, touch, human emotion… these are the true luxuries in a digital age. Similarly, as the pace of technology becomes ever more swift, our yearning for time to slow down appears overwhelming. It’s an odd state to find ourselves in: infuriated by everyday delays (whether caused by erratic broadband or unreliable transport), yet also longing for a less frenetic tempo of life.
Perhaps this ambivalence about what we yearn for – whether it is the time to do nothing, or the space in which to find ourselves – is rooted in the contradictions that are inherent in the meaning of luxury. We associate the word with wealth, comfort, sumptuous finery – but its original connotations were more to do with lechery and lust. Luxus, in Latin, denoted indulgence, excess and debauchery; hence Chaucer referred to “the foule lust of luxurie”, while for Shakespeare, it represented adultery. (“She knows the heat of a luxurious bed,” declares Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing. “Her blush is guiltiness, not modesty.”)
Eventually, the word evolved from its original meaning, and by the last century, it had come to signify material riches. Yet this definition, in turn, was also questioned: by Coco Chanel, for example, who observed, “Some people think luxury is the opposite of poverty. It is not. It is the opposite of vulgarity.” Meanwhile, Cassandra Mortmain, the spirited heroine of I Capture the Castle – Dodie Smith’s wonderful coming-of-age novel set in the 1930s – finds herself wondering if luxury is altogether to be trusted. “I had never realised before that it is more than just having things; it makes the very air feel different. And I felt different, breathing that air… And though I cannot honestly say I would ever turn my back on any luxury I could come by, I do feel there is something a bit wrong in it. Perhaps that makes it all the more enjoyable.” Elsewhere in the book, however, she enjoys “the blissful luxury” of being in love; the “great luxury [of] letting myself cry”; and “contemplation… the only luxury that costs nothing…”
All of which suggests, at the very least, that luxury is a shape-shifting concept; an emotion, as much as an object to caress; an idea that is as elusive as it is sought-after. But desire is at its heart – the desire to have and to hold; to escape, while also being cocooned; to love, and be loved. And as with true love, real luxury should be cherished for ever, in the knowledge that what we hold most dear may not be ours to possess.