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The Lexicon - Louche

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Word: Louche

Definition: (adj) not reputable or decent

Origin: F, lit., cross-eyed, squint-eyed, fr. L luscus blind in one eye

Source: Marilynne Robinson's Home --

He dressed carefully before every venture into town, jacket, tie, and hat. It was a louche sort of respectability he achieved, she thought, but it was earnestly persisted in, with much attention to the shine on his shoes.

It is the plight of every reader to encounter words in print that we have never heard and have no idea how to pronounce. We read along, we mumble mentally past the offending word, and then, should we ever be called upon to read this word aloud, we are startled - every time - by the realization that we are about to hazard a wild guess. Some attempt this with a brazen confidence, regardless of the outcome. Others stumble, assuming that no matter how they pronounce, the exchange has now failed.

I've now listened to the pronunciation of louche a half-dozen times, and I'm confident I would still stumble. It's not complicated, not really. Essentially loosh, but no matter how many times I've tried it myself, it still sounds wrong.

It is also not uncommon for an avid reader to get the gist of the word, from experience, from context, and never actually inquire as to its meaning or origin. This example could easily have been one of those, the reader concluding that what Robinson means here is something less than positive, a negative taint on this attempt at respectability. This example also proves, however, that going to the dictionary is always worth my time.

First, there is the path this word has taken to its meaning: from the literal (blind in one eye) to the literal with a touch of the figurative (cross-eyed or squint-eyed) to the figurative. The step from shifty-eyed to disreputable is not so difficult, but to get from blind in one eye to indecent is quite a leap.

Also, there are layers of connotation possible here! Some dictionaries amend the definition, adding to disreputable the clause in a way that is often found attractive. Oh! What a discovery! Louche is the word we've been needing for all those romantic interests that we knew were trouble. The stereotypical bad boy, the partner your parents would not approve of, the one you think you might be able to rescue, the one your best friend does not trust - all louche.

Once you've dissected the thing, laid it out on the table before you, split and empty, then you turn back to the original, and you get the satisfying clunk of the gear fitted perfectly into the teeth of its neighbor, the perfect turning of the sentence.

Robinson's Jack is the stereotypical bad boy, especially in his own eyes. He's the one who disapproves most heartily of himself, he's his own worst critic, so even as he's trying for that respectability, he doesn't even trust himself to pull it off. He carries with him that whiff of disapproval, that sense of needing to be saved, if only someone could just love him enough. How louche.


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