Q&A: Luxurious vs luxuriant

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re living a life of luxury…

Q: Hello AWC, I was reading about a luxury hotel the other day and one paragraph described the “luxurious” day spa. Then it talked about the “luxuriant” bathrooms. Is there a difference between these two words?

A: Yes, there is a difference.

Q: I thought all words beginning with “lux” were related to luxury?

A: Nope. Put your robe back on; we’re taking the luxury tour. To start with, the word “luxury” comes from Latin “luxus” – meaning excess.

Q: My uncle had a Lexus and he ate to excess. Is that similar?

A: Not even close. Anyway, we’ll come back to that. The word “luxury” is a busy word – popping up as a few different types of nouns as well as an adjective.

Q: Examples?

A: Oxford Dictionaries gives us some. You can have a “life of luxury” (mass noun) or you could add “some luxuries” to your grocery shop (count noun). It can also mean a rare pleasure: “it’s a real luxury to spend the day together”.

Q: Nawww. And the adjective form?

A: You used one in your first sentence. A luxury hotel. A luxury yacht. According to the Etymology Dictionary, it’s only been used as an adjective since 1916.

Q: Okay, so these are fairly straightforward so far.

A: That’s right. And from “luxury”, we get adjectives that describe the sumptuous, expensive, elegant stuff. Words like “luxurious” and the French-origin terms “luxe” (16th century) and “deluxe” (1819).

Q: Are you sure they didn’t come from Luxembourg? Bahahaaa.

A: Very sure. So this brings us to “luxuriant”.

Q: So it does.

A: Remember how we said “luxury” came from the Latin “luxus”?

Q: Of course I remember – it was only 38 seconds ago.

A: Good. Well, from “luxus” came the Latin “luxuria” – which meant “excess, wealth and rankness”.

Q: Rankness? I don’t associate something that smells bad with luxury… except maybe truffles.

A: Actually, that definition is not the main one for the adjective “rank” – it primarily means to “grow in abundance, dense, lush, excessively”. And it was THIS part of the “luxuria” meaning that gave us the word…

Q: Luxuriant!

A: That’s right. Generally used in relation to vegetation or hair, something that is “luxuriant” is described by Macquarie Dictionaryas “abundant or exuberant in growth”.

Q: So back at the day spa, that bathroom probably shouldn’t have been described as luxuriant?

A: Not unless it’s a dense jungle of vegetation. Or hair.

Q: No, it’s all marble and bright lights. Actually, speaking of which, what about the word “lux”? Doesn’t that have to do with light?

A: It certainly does. It’s a standard measure of light. And just as words like “violins” and “violence” look similar but don’t share definitions, the same is true here. In fact, “lux” comes directly from Latin. Its root is itself; “lux” – meaning “light”.

Q: Some words have all the lux. So any final thoughts on “luxurious” vs “luxuriant”?

A: Think of the word “rich” and its two meanings. “Luxurious” describes rich, elegant, expensive things. And “luxuriant” describes rich, lush, abundant growing things.

Q: Makes sense! Now, you’ll have to excuse me. I’m late for my Luxembourgian massage…

Do you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore? Email it to us today!

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