WORD IN THE HAND: Decadence
What decadent hell is this?
A column to satisfy your inner grammar nerd
I’m not sure when it happened. Somehow I missed it completely. Perhaps I was painting my toenails, or at the airport being annoyed by interminable calls for “outstanding passengers” (what about all the average passengers?), or stuffing the “handwash-only” items, still unwashed, back into the bottom of the laundry basket.
I must have been doing something important, because otherwise I would have heard the sound of the last lonely crumbs falling softly onto a plate as the last surviving piece of non-decadent chocolate cake was consigned to the bowels of extinction.
You might not even have realised that non-decadent chocolate cake was in danger, because those who carried out this menu cleansing did so with extreme cunning and stealth. In the dead of night, while everyone else was in bed digesting and dreaming chocolate dreams, these decadent dissenters crept into restaurants, bakeries and delicatessens. They invaded recipe books, blogs and the food pages of magazines. Wherever they went, they mercilessly altered the description of every form of chocolate comestible to include the word “decadent”.This was a clever move on behalf of the decadence supremacists. Had they published their intention in a Government Gazette, or put up posters declaring the undesirability of any chocolate cake not steeped in decadence, there would no doubt have been a revolution, and heads would have rolled.
But their mission succeeded and here we are, living in an age where all chocolate cakes are legally required to be decadent. It is a very sad situation. Perhaps not as tragic as the loss of the last male northern white rhino last month, but sad nonetheless.
There used to be diversity in the world of cakes. There were rich chocolate cakes, dark chocolate cakes, milk chocolate cakes, studded chocolate cakes and plain chocolate cakes. Now there are only decadent chocolate cakes.
I wonder, if the zealots bent on making this the decade of decadence had stopped to look up the etymology of the word they so slavishly worship, would they have stopped in their decadent tracks?Decadence, you see, has not always been associated with wickedly sinful sweet temptations. Only in the 1970s did a maverick food critic use “decadent” to describe a pudding he enjoyed. He thought he was being oh-so subversive by using this adjective, and so he was, because up to that point decadent did not mean delicious; it meant rotten.
The English word “decadence” comes via French from the Latin root decadere, which also gave us “decay”. In the 1800s, gloomy Parisian “creatives” liked to say they were living in an age of decadence. They defined these as the last days of beauty before the world went to hell in a handbasket, but really their lives were decadent because they had no fridges in which to store their cake so it all went rotten.
The unnamed food critic probably did not even in his most decadent dreams imagine that his renegade word would be adopted as a descriptor for all chocolate cake, but oh boy, did it catch on. It got stuck in and chewed up every opponent until it completely took over. Introducing decadent onto dessert menus was like introducing water hyacinth to a dam. It wiped everything else off the menu.
“Hell in a handbasket”, incidentally, is a phrase dating back to times when the French, among others, lopped people’s heads off for eating cake and indulging in other decadent pursuits. The severed heads, being mostly of a rounded shape, tended to roll some way away from the guillotine, so while it was the executioner’s job to pick up the larger remains of his victims, another poor soul was dispatched to go round with a basket and collect their noggins.
Those who miss the days when chocolate cakes were allowed not to be decadent might wish a similar fate on those who forced decadence down our throats. But that would be rotten.