My word of 2016: Luxury
I’ve seen quite a few people choosing their words of the year. Writing words about words – how meta. Most of them have been things like “Brexit” or “privilege” or “post-truth”, but these are all terms packed with meaning; they instantly come to life, teasing out memories and experiences. They’re devastatingly evocative. My word of the year, however, is quite the opposite. It’s a word which is now lost when removed from the confines of a sentence because it has become borderline meaningless.
It’s not uncommon for words to become less effective when they’re used more often. Words like “literally” and “amazing” have long since been dusted off from the shelf of superlatives and dragged down into everyday pedestrian usage, but they do at least retain a certain charm. “Literally” still adds emphasis, while “amazing” has a cute, knowing sarcasm to it. “Luxury”, however, is dead. Here lies Luxury, overused into oblivion, redefined into insignificance.
Luxury used to be unattainable, left only to billionaires, the titled or characters on ’80s soaps. Alexis Carrington in Dynasty lived a life of unrivalled luxury, swathed in furs, with caviar dotted around the room next to the ashtrays, and a gloved hand proffering chilled champagne never more than three feet away.
Historically, us mere mortals in the real world have often aspired to luxury, installing sunken baths or adding conservatories to the back of our knackered terraces, buying Babycham at Christmas, but we never kidded ourselves we were living the lush life. We knew we weren’t superstars with untold riches – and once the novelty faded, we got back to circling shows to watch in the TV Times or buying Wagon Wheels. The trouble with proper luxury was that it wasn’t sustainable for ordinary folk. Real life gets in the way.
But now luxury is something else. We want it so bad we are willing to snatch whatever we can get of it. We are prepared to pretend it’s something else entirely. We are telling ourselves anything even slightly above “bog-standard”, “perfectly suitable”, “basic but functional” or “horrid but appropriate” is a luxury– it is used as a distancing word, rather than a true expression of joy.
See all those “luxury flats” developers can’t help but throw up every time a small plot of land to build on becomes free. Stand still long enough in London and you’ll come to to find an M&S Simply Food built in your knickers with seven floors of luxury apartments above. What makes these flats so luxe? Gold-plated bathrooms? A personal lift all the way to the top? A helipad? Well, no, sadly. In this case, luxury seems to mean a built-in dishwasher, cream carpets that will fuzz up the minute they meet a sock for the first time and magnolia walls. The shower and taps will be disappointingly chrome, in B&Q’s second cheapest range, and you will share your design of tiles with every other hastily knocked-up overpriced cell from Bermondsey to Bayswater.
A quick search on the Marks and Spencer website for “luxury” is a pretty good thermometer of where the word is going. Luxury canapés include – what else – smoked salmon, that well-known inaccessible food stuffs that proles can only stare open-mouthed at, as it gleams proudly from the shelves in Tesco. A luxury dressing gown seems only to have earned its title thanks to the fact David Gandy is modelling it, and luxury candles have only an inflated price to allude to their luxe credentials.
Supermarkets have long tapped into our snob potential with their silvery-packaged Finest and Extra Special and Taste the Difference ranges, but now it’s not enough for us to merely know we have better sausages than everyone else. We want the faux-luxury experience 24/7. Fauxury, maybe? No? Maybe? No. OK.
A luxury item is now lightly aspirational and reassuringly out of reach of someone who would either use the product wrong or not appreciate it, and thus embarrass the whole concept of luxury and its devotees. On Wednesdays, Luxury wears pink. It Instagrams its starter.
Luxury as a word tells us we can expect to pay more, that the product is not quite as basic as the one £5 cheaper than it and, in the case of most pre-packed food, there’ll be an ingredient within we’re not keen on but won’t complain because we assume it’s a LUXURY ingredient that we don’t understand. The amazing thing about Luxury is that it’s not just othering to people who still buy the basic range, it feeds into our own self-loathing and paranoid that we’re hugely unsophisticated. Case in point: Christmas is coming up and many families will try an “extra special” prepared gravy or stuffing or pigs in blankets. Don’t bother – they’ll all taste like crap and you will blame your own primitive palate instead of daring to admit that sometimes, just sometimes, things that cost more or pretend to be luxe are actually terrible.
There’s nothing wrong with formerly luxury items becoming everyday. Asparagus! Pumpkins! Mobile phones! Debt! But elevating the standard or passable to deluxe status feels like we’re being cheated.
But maybe I am giving Luxury a bad rap. Is it so wrong to strive for something a little better, your fingers hovering over the prosecco two price-points up because it has a silver label and says it was “specially selected” for the supermarket? Why shouldn’t we reach for the stars and pretend that bottle of fizz is going to be uncorked after a seven-second ride in the express lift to our penthouse? Perhaps I am wrong to want nice things we perfectly deserve to be considered normal and available to everyone, rather than a rare treat we should be throwing ourselves on the ground and thanking a merciful God for.
Let’s not pretend a flat the size of a rat’s eye with a breakfast bar and no room for storage is in any way a luxury just because it has a dishwasher. A turd rolled in glitter is still just that.
Luxury – we barely knew you. Goodbye.