- Abundant or unexpected generosity, occasionally to excess; also, the trait of being disposed to such
- Extremely generous gifts or actions
Walking home from work one wintry day, you encounter Santa Claus standing on a street corner. He's amiably ringing a hand-bell, trying to draw attention to the Salvation Army bucket at his feet. Smiling a little to yourself, you pull out a little loose change and drop it in. Santa looks at you for a moment, and then rings the bell again, this time with a little more emphasis. You shrug, pull out your wallet, and drop in a dollar. The bell ringing doesn't stop, instead getting louder and more frantic - Santa looks like he's trying to land a plane, and people are staring. Feeling self-conscious, you pull out a fistful of dollars. Santa finally stops ringing; smiling now, he takes the money from your hand and says, "Thank you for your largesse, sir."
Largesse usually refers to extreme generosity, indicating that considerable money, gifts, or deeds are given to others (usually by choice, unless there's an aggressive Chris Cringle in your face). We're not just talking about giving a spare penny to a homeless guy: largesse describes charity so great that it makes people stand up and take notice, like if you were to take that homeless guy to a Michelin-rated restaurant. The generosity indicated by largesse is understood to be unexpected or out of proportion with the norms of a situation. As good as this sounds, though, keep in mind that the word is a two-sided coin. Of course things done out of largesse will be appreciated by those on the receiving end (unless they're ingrates); think of how nice it was when France presented the United States with the Statue of Liberty. But largesse can occasionally imply a sense of too much liberality. Combined with imprudence, this overabundance can lead to disaster - if France gave a Statue of Liberty to every nation who wanted one, they'd soon have to serrer la ceinture!
Besides referring to the concept of munificence, largesse can also mean the trait of being extremely generous. Someone who possesses largesse gives abundantly to those less fortunate, thinking little of parting with money or gifts to improve the lots of others. Similarly, the word sometimes refers to the actual gifts given, describing deeds done to benefit someone beyond the bounds of what is normally called for. In either case, largesse is extremely welcome by those who are being helped, yet can lead to trouble for those philanthropists who don't give judiciously.
You might sometimes come across the word largess, but don't mistake it for a typo. Largesse and largess are the same word, variants able to be used interchangeably in any appropriate context. The "e" is simply left off sometimes; these days, though, largesse is more common than its "e"-less companion.
Example: In a startling act of largesse, the billionaire donated enough money to single-handedly save his local library from bankruptcy.
Example: Santa Claus' largesse is hardly advisable given the fickle nature of the global economy.
Example: After every Sunday Mass, the priest always looked forward to the largesse that awaited in the collection basket.
The origins of largesse can be followed back to the Latin term largus, which means "copious" or "in a great amount" (unsurprisingly, largus is also an ancestor of the word "large"). Largesse would later appear in Old French (note the same spelling as in modern English) as a way to refer to "a profuse, bounteous amount" of something. From here, the word made its way into Middle English, where it became associated with virtuous charity. Largesse is first recorded in Modern English during the 13th century, where it would evolve to describe the quality of ample generosity.
From E.B. White's Here is New York:
On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy. It is this largess that accounts for the presence within the city's walls of a considerable section of the population; for the residents of Manhattan are to a large extent strangers who have pulled up stakes somewhere and come to town, seeking sanctuary or fulfillment or some greater or lesser grail.
Here, the author describes the concealment of living in New York as largess. Thanks to the generous amount of confidentiality the city bestows, its citizens are allowed to autonomously pursue whatever lives they wish.
From William Shakespeare's Macbeth:
What, sir, not yet at rest? The king's a-bed.He hath been in unusual pleasure, andSent forth great largess to your offices.This diamond he greets your wife withal,By the name of most kind hostess, and shut upIn measureless content.
Here, Shakespeare uses largess to show that the king has been inordinately generous. In this scene, he has sent Lady Macbeth a diamond to thank her for her hospitality.
- Philanthropists bless with their largesse
Bring out the linguist in you! What is your own interpretation of largesse. Did you use largesse in a game? Provide an example sentence or a literary quote.