Word of The Day for Tuesday, September 21, 2010


sump•tu•ary \ˈsəm(p)-chə-ˌwer-ē\   adj


1: relating to personal expenditures and especially to prevent extravagance and luxury <conservative sumptuary tastes — John Cheever>
2: designed to regulate extravagant expenditures or habits especially on moral or religious grounds <sumptuary laws> <sumptuary tax>


Shares a root with sumptuous and consumption.


• Some have called the purchase of carbon offsets the moral equivalent of buying ”indulgences” from the medieval Catholic church. Others have compared it to the men who paid substitutes to fight for them in the Civil War.  There is some truth in both comparisons. I would like to enter a third comparison: the sumptuary laws. Sumptuary laws were much in vogue during the medieval times as well as periods of time in colonial America. February 2007

• This Article assesses intellectual property law’s emerging role as a modern form of sumptuary law. The Article observes that we have begun to rely on certain areas of intellectual property law to provide us with the means to preserve our conventional system of consumption-based social distinction, our sumptuary code, in the face of incipient social and technological conditions that threaten the viability of this code. January 2010

• Throughout history, societies have used sumptuary laws for a variety of purposes. They attempted to regulate the balance of trade by limiting the market for expensive imported goods. They were also an easy way to identify social rank and privilege, and often were used for social discrimination. Wikipedia


Latin sumptuarius, from sumptus expense, from sumere to take, spend
First Known Use: 1600
This word began its life as one of the adjectives of the now defunct noun, sumpt, which meant "expenditure". The other adjective is sumptuous "expensive, costly". The person in charge of expenditures may be called the sumptuary, which makes a plural, sumptuaries, possible, as in a gathering of the company sumptuaries. alphaDictionary

Sources: Merriam-Webster

Why This Word

While the root word suggests that sumptuary would refer to being related to an expenditure, in modern usage it seems completely wedded to law. Sumptuary laws have a long history and people, in modern western cultures, tend to think of them as a relic of the past or limited relevance in the present. The idea of regulating personal consumption is today so thoroughly discredited that when the word is used contemporaneously, it's as a criticism.

But that is something of a lie. All but the most hardcore libertarian accepts a large variety of regulations of personal expenditures. A law banning the wearing of silk scarves would be sumptuary laws, but law banning the wearing of scarves by Muslim women? Laws banning eating cakes, yes; laws banning trans-fats? Laws banning recreational drug use?

However, as the examples suggest, when we do use sumptuary in a modern context, it in a way that deliberately seeks to expand the meaning. Whatever one thinks of the logical connection between historical sumptuary laws and carbon trading, applying sumptuary to corporate pollution emission controls would not have made sense to the Edwardians. But as we expand more and more the idea of personhood to corporations, it would only make sense that corporate regulations would be viewed through the lense of sumptuary laws.

Thus, the use of sumptuary has become in itself a political act. We use it to differentiate ourselves from the past. We use it to differentiate necessary restrictions of use and consumption from incorrect moralizing. And in that it becomes a prism that refracts the spectrum of the contemporary debate of the role of government in regulating expenditures.

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