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I have often seen decadent used to refer to a non-physical state, like a person who is spiritually or morally decadent. Could decadent be applied to something physical like a building or a town to describe a state of neglect and ruin? If not, what adjective could best describe this physical state?

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Interesting. When applied to a physical object, I never think of decadent to mean "a state of neglect and ruin"; rather something gilded, opulent, or ridiculously adorned. – Digital Chris Apr 21 '14 at 17:42
@Digital Chris I agree: a transferred epithet, the state of society producing such artifacts being indirectly referred to. I think that the dictionary definition Elliott gives is misleading. And I'd say he seems to feel so too, using the contrastive discourse marker 'however' rather than the concessive discourse marker 'nevertheless'. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 21 '14 at 18:43
@EdwinAshworth Correct. I gave the dictionary definition that fits OP's usage. When I hear decadent, I think of rich cheesecake. Not derelict buildings. – Elliott Frisch Apr 21 '14 at 18:55
@Elliott The trouble with dictionary definitions is that they often miss out important usage notes. For instance, the verb 'dance' isn't strictly intransitive, but labelling it 'intrans / trans' hides the fact that it only takes (to the best of my knowledge) cognate (she danced the dance of flowers in the wind) or hyponymic (then we danced a tango) objects. 'Marked by decay or decline' would seem to license the usage 'I have a decadent tooth', but this is only used rarely on the internet, and then not as an alternative for 'decayed tooth'. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 21 '14 at 19:03
I've checked the permitted objects for 'dance'; there are others, if for unusual usages!: v.tr. 1. To engage in or perform (a dance). [so restrictions on DO flagged] 2. To cause to dance. 3. To bring to a particular state or condition by dancing: 'He danced me to exhaustion'. (+ 'dance attention on') [AHD]. I'm impressed. – Edwin Ashworth Apr 21 '14 at 19:42
up vote 14 down vote accepted

Decadent can be used that way (marked by decay or decline). However, I would not think of that definition first (and it's quite a way down on the link; seeing as the far more common meaning is having low morals and a great love of pleasure, money, etc). Therefore, I think you want decrepit or derelict or blight or dilapidated.

decrepit   adjective

old and in bad condition or poor health


derelict   adjective

no longer cared for or used by anyone


blight   noun

a deteriorated condition


dilapidated   adjective

in very bad condition because of age or lack of care

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Would you use decrepit or derelict to describe a town for instance? – Josh61 Apr 21 '14 at 17:49
@Jack Maybe. – Elliott Frisch Apr 21 '14 at 17:50
There's also dilapidated. – Elliott Frisch Apr 21 '14 at 17:51
That sounds better indeed! – Josh61 Apr 21 '14 at 17:53
@Jack Decrepit, derelict, dilapidated, Detroit... – Michael Hampton Apr 22 '14 at 4:19

"Decadent" does not mean "decayed". It means "in a state of moral decline". A decadent building would not be dilapidated one; it would be a building so ostentatious as to suggest that its owner lacks any sense of the value of money.

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I would suggest "down-at-the-heel."

down-at-the-heel: worn out from long use or neglect, dilapidated.

One place to look might be this slightly down-at-the-heel town smack in England's center.

Just a louse of a husband, who deposits her in a down-at-the-heel apartment building and then immediately abandons her.

In consonance with "decadent," consider also "decaying."

He led me all the way to the decaying town and then opened up the factory's iron gate.

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Or in its currently more common form down-at-heel ([(ngrams)[books.google.com/ngrams/…) -- for all corpora except only American English (for which the 2 variants are roughly equal) the version without the is more common. – Chris H Apr 22 '14 at 10:52

Decadent is certainly used to describe objects; google (images) Decadent Dining Room, or Decadent Carrot Cake and you'll find plenty of results.

It's notable almost all things described as decadent are opulent to the point of ostentatious; clearly not reflecting cultural decline but maybe reflecting moral decline : that someone would spend so much on aesthetics when the money could be used for a better purpose.

A synonym for decadent is self-indulgent. This almost certainly describes the carrot cake but decadent would apply to the eater of the cake, not the cake itself.

Does it describe the decor of a building? Perhaps it does, the owner may be self-indulgent and has spent a small fortune on his decadent home. Decadent (self-indulgent) applies to the owner in that case not really the building.

See here for an entire city described as decadent, but it means the people in the city. decadent Berlin

Slightly alternative theory (and it is just that)

There was an art movement in the late 19th to early 20th century called Aestheticism, and one branch of that movement was the Decadent movement. Presumably they took their name from the word decadent and their ideas about art focused on preferring the complicated to the simple and the artificial over natural. A decadent building is rarely simple or natural.

As the furnishings and design of a building could be construed as art, should the words for describing a decadent building actually be a Decadent building (with a capital d), showing that it reflects the values of the Decadent movement ?

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According to the old digital dictionaries I have available, "decadent" was associated with a state of decay. So I think it would be legitimate for you to use it the way you describe.

However since the adjective is primarily used to describe moral decay, it would be interpreted as such, regardless of how you had meant it.

So ignoring whether it is correct or not, you would probably communicate your meaning more clearly by using an alternative from the thesaurus. I rather like "decaying" or "decayed"; also "rusted", "rotten", "degraded", "dilapidated" and "disintegrated". I also like "withered" but that probably applies better to organic subjects, as it is associated with drying up and wrinkling.

Looking up the definition for "decadence" reveals that the word literally means "to fall":

$ dict decadence
From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 [gcide]:

  Decadence \De*ca"dence\, Decadency \De*ca"den*cy\, n. [LL.
     decadentia; L. de- + cadere to fall: cf. F. d['e]cadence. See
     A falling away; decay; deterioration; declension. "The old
     castle, where the family lived in their decadence." --Sir W.
     [1913 Webster]

The full entry for "decadent" mentions "decay":

$ dict decadent
4 definitions found

From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 [gcide]:

  Decadent \De*ca"dent\, a.
     Decaying; deteriorating.
     [1913 Webster]

From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 [gcide]:

  Decadent \De*ca"dent\, n.
     One that is decadent, or deteriorating; esp., one
     characterized by, or exhibiting, the qualities of those who
     are degenerating to a lower type; -- specif. applied to a
     certain school of modern French writers.

           The decadents and [ae]sthetes, and certain types of
           realists.                                --C. L. Dana.

           The business men of a great State allow their State to
           be represented in Congress by "decadents". --The
     [Webster 1913 Suppl.]

From WordNet (r) 3.0 (2006) [wn]:

      adj 1: marked by excessive self-indulgence and moral decay; "a
             decadent life of excessive money and no sense of
             responsibility"; "a group of effete self-professed
             intellectuals" [syn: {decadent}, {effete}]
      n 1: a person who has fallen into a decadent state (morally or

From Moby Thesaurus II by Grady Ward, 1.0 [moby-thes]:

  64 Moby Thesaurus words for "decadent":
     abandoned, coming apart, contaminated, corrupt, corrupted,
     cracking, crumbling, debased, debauched, decaying, declining,
     degenerate, degenerating, degenerative, degraded, depraved,
     deteriorating, disintegrating, dissipated, dissolute, draining,
     drooping, dwindling, ebbing, effete, fading, failing, falling,
     falling off, flagging, fragmenting, going to pieces, immoral,
     languishing, marcescent, morally polluted, on the wane, perverted,
     pining, polluted, profligate, regressive, reprobate, retrograde,
     retrogressive, rotten, self-indulgent, shriveling, sinking,
     sliding, slipping, slumping, steeped in iniquity, subsiding,
     tabetic, tainted, vice-corrupted, vitiated, waning, warped,
     wasting, wilting, withering, worsening
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Decadent movement in late romantic arts and aesthetics was partly a reaction to paternalistic moralism. Instead of virtues decadents wanted to explore vices, instead of appreciating clarity and uplifting idealism of classical architecture decadents found pleasure in ruins. So you might say that that a dilapidated house is not in itself decadent but liking one most certainly is.

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