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Everyone who is not from the US that I know gives the same quizzical look when some food commercial claims that a TV dinner is decadent.

When did it start being used to mean luxurious? And why? (Our best guess is that it was a joking bet by some people in advertising that got out of hand...)

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4 Answers 4

Etymonline says that this has been going on for forty years, mentioning that the word is "usually used in a bad sense," but:

Beckoning sense of "desirable and satisfying to self-indulgence" begins c.1970 in commercial publications in reference to desserts.

Four decades is long enough for some dictionaries to catch up; one of Macmillan's definition reads:

allowing yourself, or providing, so much pleasure that it almost seems morally wrong : a deliciously decadent dessert

The Cambridge online dictionary specifically denotes this usage as "humorous":

decadent (adj.) A decadent person or group has low moral standards
a decadent society
the decadent court surrounding the king
HUMOROUS Champagne and chocolates for breakfast - how decadent!

The closest Collins comes to portraying this word in a positive light is including self-indulgent in its definition; however, the surrounding language doesn't make it seem like the word can be used in such a neutral or "humorous" way:

decadent (adj.) characterized by decay or decline, as in being self-indulgent or morally corrupt

with these synonyms:

degenerate, abandoned, corrupt, degraded, immoral, depraved, debased, debauched, dissolute, self-indulgent

Getting back to your question, I'd surmise that decadent started being used in this way – that is, as a positive descriptor of food – around the same time the term self-indulgent didn't necessarily imply moral lapses.

Interestingly enough, the McDonald's ad campaign You Deserve a Break Today began in 1971; around the same time Etymonline says that advertisers started proclaiming that it was okay to be decadent. Evidently, we deserve a little self-indulgence now and then, and partaking does not make us morally corrupt – at least, that is what the advertisers would have us believe. The OED, though, is not so quick to agree:

decadent (adj.) That is in a state of decay or decline; falling off or deteriorating from a prior condition of excellence, vitality, prosperity, etc.

with no added mention or example citations of the word being used to "humorously" describe chocolate. I'd point out that the OED meaning seems to accurately describe what might happen to a waistline after guiltlessly partaking in too many decadent desserts.

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interesting! the only dict i had that showed that use was a pocket one, hence no "humorous" call out. So, no dictionary explicitly endorses the food-advert use of decadence? I know they have to keep up with a live language changing, but I'm trying to grasp the changes in "decadence" to understand what does it take for a word used to wrong to be accepted as right. e.g. how long before dictionaries start to list 'literately' as 'figuratively' just because people misuse them too often? –  gcb Mar 10 '13 at 4:10
    
@gcb: Most dictionaries have entire editorial boards that consider new words on a regular basis. The OED does so quarterly. When updates get made, it's not uncommon for journalists to list some (or all) of the new words, and make commentary on the process, as was done in this article. –  J.R. Mar 10 '13 at 9:37

In the context you describe the value of the word decadent lies not in its meaning but in its associations.

Many people who cannot define the word would be able to tell you that it has to do with ancient Rome -- reclining on couches, being feed delicious morsels by nubile slaves, feasting on exotic foods, all without exerting any apparent effort in preparation.

That sounds like every ad-man's vision of a frozen meal to me!

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When someone refers to a product as decadent in that sense, they are placing special attention on indulgence. While 'decadent' isn't a word that is naturally used as a good thing, within the context of marketing (e.g. chocolate, etc.), they construe the meaning of the word in a way that makes the product appealing. In terms of "when", I am not sure how to address that part of your question.

What you have observed is something that has happened with modern usage of the word 'dilettante'. It used to be a good thing, referring to one who dabbles in the arts, mathematics, etc. It used to be associated with "renaissance men". Today however it can be used pejoratively to refer to someone who has superficial knowledge of something.

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I can understand the change of meaning from dilettante since it changed in a time when all terms referring to amateurism were getting a bad connotation, since by then art, specially in Italy, was become more and more of a profession. But the marketing use of decadent began before the word was more widely used elsewhere in the language, as far as i can tell. –  gcb Mar 10 '13 at 4:17
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You're not alone in this confusion: I remember first hearing the usage of the word in such a way during a chocolate commercial. I was so confused by the manner in which it was used, I clearly remember picking up a dictionary to verify that it could actually be used in that way. –  eazar001 Mar 10 '13 at 4:32

I think this question smacks more of peeving than anything else, but I offer this 1895 citation...

"Is it not that we [prize classic simplicity] more than any jewelled splendour of decadent luxury?"

There's nothing unusual, recent, or to be sneered at, in the association of decadence, moral decline with self-indulgence.

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decadent on that example is within it's intended meaning as far as I can tell. –  gcb Mar 10 '13 at 4:12
    
@gcb: I don't see what you're getting at. My citation was intended to show that decadence has long been associated with [self-indulgent] luxury. There's no "change of meaning" involved in the modern advertising usage - it's just tongue-in-cheek humour to use it positively rather than negatively. But that's not the only context where the negative associations can be discarded, as shown by enjoy the decadent lusciousness of the valley in 1957, which is neither funny nor advertising. –  FumbleFingers Mar 10 '13 at 14:07

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