Wednesday, July 22, 2015

New Word Wednesday: louche

Imagine, for a moment, that you're a 40-year-old editor, and you enter an adult spelling bee. Why not, it's for charity. You are the twelfth of fifteen spellers. The first speller steps up to the mic and is given the word potato.

'Oh, this first round is gonna be easy,' you think. You listen to eleven more words given and spelled correctly — nothing difficult. You could have spelled each of them without a moment's hesitation.

Then you step up to the mic, and the esteemed pronouncer looks at you and says, "Your word is 'LOOSH.'"

You've never heard 'loosh' before. You wonder for a moment whether the pronouncer wears a retainer, and if that retainer popped out while she was giving you your word, causing her to mangle her pronunciation of loose or lush or even gruesome.
You ask her to say the word again.

There's no denying that she is, in fact, saying 'LOOSH.'

Hoping to buy some time, you ask for the word's etymology. Most of what she says goes in one ear and out the other, but you catch that it came from French. You dig deep into your experience with language and spelling, step up to the mic, and start saying letters.

This was exactly my experience with the adult spelling bee at the 2015 conference of the American Copy Editors Society in March. The spelling I gave (based on douche, which I knew was French for "shower") turned out to be correct, and so I wasn't faced with the embarrassment of being eliminated in the first round. In fact, I lasted quite some time — round 16, maybe? — coming in third overall.

But my memory of this particular competition will forever be bound up in that first word, louche, and my last word, schadenfreude*, standing like two evil bookends on a shelf marked "self-inflicted wounds."

Louche, as I mentioned, came from the French word losche, meaning cross-eyed or squint-eyed, which itself came from the Latin luscus, meaning blind in one eye. Though ophthalmological in original, louche takes a more metaphorical meaning in its common usage.

If, indeed, it is ever commonly used.

A gold chrome-plated Porsche.
The Louchemobile. (Also the Douchemobile.)
Louche is an adjective that can mean indecent, decadent, disreputable, or otherwise of questionable taste. If you've ever been to Las Vegas, you've likely seen some pretty louche things.

A little louche can go a long way. Too much — like this gold chrome-plated convertible Porsche — might leave you cross-eyed.

*I was eliminated when a stray U made it into my spelling schadenfreude. And all right, schussboomer is a pretty strong memory in there, too, but I was going for a little gravitas here.