Let’s talk a little bit about money, assets, or other things that are passed on to individuals or through the generations.
First things first: an important principle to remember is that heritage is what comes to you, whereas a legacy is something that you pass on. This doe/hesn’t mean that you can never use legacy to refer to the recipient (see below for examples), but if the sentence doesn’t specify, you follow the principle I’ve just outlined.
It’s his legacy. [This means ‘what he is leaving behind.]
It’s his heritage. [This means what is being passed down to him.]
Legacy has three main meanings:
A bequest or gift
A legacy is money or property that someone leaves you when they die:
Her uncle left her a small legacy.
He used his grandfather’s legacy to buy his first house.
You get or receive a legacy FROM someone; for obvious reasons, relatives often appear in sentences with the word legacy (aunts, uncles, parents, godparents, etc.).
From the point of view of person passing on their assets, we say that they leave a legacy to someone, or (more formally) they bequeath it.
Something that is left behind from the past
In this sense, legacy is used to refer to more abstract things that are left behind by events or people’s actions, in which case the meaning is usually negative; or to refer to a person’s contribution to the world, in which case the meaning is usually positive.
The civil war has left a bitter legacy of hatred.
The legacy is the low interest, consumerist era is a mountain of consumer debt.
This extraordinary novel is his legacy.
The legacy of these Olympic Games is a greater culture of diversity.
From the Press:
Costa winner Hannah Lowe on the legacy of lockdown: my students write about feeling isolated and missing out.
Germany agonises over Merkel’s legacy: did she hand too much power to Putin?
London’s Olympic legacy three years on: is the city really getting what it needed?
Upon my death, delete: how to plan your digital legacy
An outdated version of a product
This third meaning is particularly common in IT, where older versions of software, for example, are called ‘legacy products’. They’re no longer to buy, or no longer available to new customers, but are still used by some people who prefer them to the newer version.
For example, the graphics software I use to create logos gives me the option to stick to the legacy version when I create a new design, or to use the new version.
Legacy is also used to described relatives of alumni of certain universities in the US:
“Many US colleges admit “legacies”, or students with a family connection to the university, at dramatically higher rates than other applicants.”
As I mentioned above, the focus of the word heritage is on what comes to you from the past. It often refers to features that are part of the culture of a society, such as language, buildings, traditions, or skills with historical importance.
Based on this definition, the adjectives that go well with heritage refer either to the type of features that are passed on, or to the culture from which they’re inherited:
- genetic heritage
- scientific heritage
- ethnic heritage
- intellectual heritage
- natural heritage
- cultural heritage
- a region’s heritage
- a town’s heritage
- a country’s heritage (there’s actually an organisation in the UK called English Heritage, which looks after historic buildings)
- national heritage
- the world’s heritage (think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites)
A useful verb to go with heritage is to preserve.
Examples from the Press:
We trash our modernist heritage on a whim: why is Britain so in thrall to the wrecking ball?
Guernsey language leader vows to promote “proud heritage“.
Restoring England’s Heritage: a look at England’s endangered historic buildings.
Now it gets a little tricky!
Inheritance overlaps with both legacy and heritage.
- Inheritance can mean the particular characteristics that you receive from your parents, i.e. ‘heritage’: genetic inheritance.
- It can also mean money or objects that you receive from someone when they die, i.e. ‘legacy’:
He spent his inheritance on fast cars.
A large inheritance from her aunt meant she was able to buy her first house at the age of 25.
I’ve tried to tease out the difference between inheritance and legacy, and it seems to me that we use the word legacy for gifts of money etc. when somebody wouldn’t normally be expected to inherit (under UK law). For example, if my aunt or my godmother left me some money in her Will, that would be called a legacy. If my parents left me all their money, on the other hand, I would probably call that my inheritance.