This word has a different feel from its near-synonym voluptuary – that word erupts like cleavage out of a tight V-neck, where as this one seems somehow softer, more insidious, but also perhaps more subtly negative in tone, and more feminine. Does it not lead to visions of, perhaps, some barrister’s parasitic sibling named Sibyl, living in the lap of luxury and soon to be a candidate for bariatric surgery?
She’d be borrowing her reputation from a sort of Sodom of southern Italy, a former Greek colony named Sybaris (the y stands for an upsilon in the original), a prosperous place with a lot of money and a lot of luxury too. Its citizens were known for fine clothing and, supposedly, effeminate manners. But a dispute between Sybaris and a neighbouring town, Crotona, in 510 BC turned more than just ugly; the Crotoniats trashed the city, put inhabitants to the sword, and diverted the course of the local river to inundate and erase the city. Now archeologists can’t find anything there.
Crotona, for its part, is now called Crotone and has about 60,000 people. Its name comes from Greek kroton, which names both a tick and a castor-oil plant, the latter of which has lent its name to croton oil, derivatives of which are called crotonic (e.g., crotonic acid, C4H6O2). Croton oil is not something you’d want to eat; small doses can cause diarrhea. If you rub it on your skin it causes irritation and swelling. So we may well say that it is anti-sybaritic!
But let’s go one better. Crotona seems similar to Croatoan, the word found carved on a tree at the Roanoake colony in Virginia, AD 1590. The colony had been thriving when last seen three years earlier, but when a ship finally got back by to check on them, there was nothing left of it, just Croatoan on a tree. Was Roanoake a New World Sybaris? Actually, Croatoan was a name of an island nearby to the Roanoake colony and a modification of Croatan, a local indian tribe that was on good terms with the colonists. So what happened? Well, we don’t know. But I’ll tell you one thing for certain: a colony in West Virginia in the late 16th century was no place you could be sybaritic.