As human being, it is in our DNA to want more, better, and, well, more of better. Though it may involve a special purchase, a certain lifestyle, or doing particular activities, all of these can potentially be classified as today’s word: luxury. Before you run out to purchase those solid silver spoons and plan your round-the-world cruise, perhaps we should look at the word and, indeed, the concept itself.
The word luxury arrived in English around 1300, and comes from Latin via the Old French luxurie which, interestingly was defined as debauchery and lust with more of a sexual connotation. Thankfully, within the next 150 years though, the understanding of the word seems to have drifted back to its original Latin meaning of, simply, excess of extravagance, which we are (hopefully) more familiar with than the Old French definition. As for what the word means conceptually, unlike what the entertainment magazines or travel brochures tell us, luxury doesn’t just have to be an expensive vacation or a certain brand of clothing that a particular celebrity is wearing, it can also be something as minuscule as more time to devote to a favourite activity or treating yourself to a favourite drink or meal after a hard day’s work.
For those luxuries that can be bought and are deemed to be “luxury goods,” apparently, here in the UK, we know and are willing to spend on. Currently, we spend approximately £8 billion on luxury goods, which is second in Europe only to France. By 2018 though, projections indicate that, of the £96 billion that the entirety of Europe will spend on luxury goods, the UK will be the top spender. Furthermore, consider that, unlike countries such as the USA and Germany, where luxury goods are often discounted, we’re willing to pay full price, it could easily be said that we tend to value luxury goods even higher than most. Of course, with brands like Burberry, Rolls-Royce, Asprey, and Dunhill, who can blame us?
One of the first known uses of the word occurs around 1386 in Chaucer’s The Man of Law’s Tale, where, applying the Old French meaning, it is written, “O foul lust of luxury.” While the sexual nature of the original definition doesn’t seem to have totally fallen out of use until the 1800s, by 1633, in Phineas Fletcher’s work, The Purple Island, we can see the word adopting its old meaning of excess: “ I never knew of want or luxury..or base-bred flattery.” For better or worse, 1833 sees Harriet Martineau describing the term in her work, Briery Creek, applied to a character by saying that, “He buys a new luxury which will yield no good beyond his own selfish pleasure.” Still, what’s life without a little pleasure and luxury?