Louche: Of questionable taste or morality; decadent. Pronunciation: loosh. From French louche, “squinting” or “cross-eyed”; originally Latin lusca, “one-eyed.”
Louche is one of those words you can go years without seeing in print, and then—wham! It’s everywhere. As it has been in the last few weeks.
The rock star (Russell Brand) is louche and blase, utterly confident and completely uncaring about whether he gets there or not.
And Dana Stevens in Slate:
In that film [Forgetting Sarah Marshall], directed by Nicholas Stoller, Jonah Hill had a small part as an obsequious waiter who hovered about Snow, bedazzled by his aura of louche self-regard.
Then I remembered that I’d seen louche a couple of times recently in the New York Times’s Sunday book-review section. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction, by Judith Thurman, to a new translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex:
When she lost her faith as a teenager, her dreams of a transcendent union (dreams that proved remarkably tenacious) shifted from Christ to an enchanting classmate named ZaZa and to a rich, indolent first cousin and childhood playmate, Jacques, who took her slumming and gave her a taste for alcohol and for louche nightlife that she never outgrew.
And here, from the following week’s review, is a passage from an essay by Dwight Garner about Russian poets:
The poets of the thaw era were liberating figures, and have frequently been likened to the West’s most word-drunk rockers and singer-songwriters: Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell,Leonard Cohen. They were political, sexy, a bit louche and sometimes ridiculous.
Yesterday’s book-review section contained this quote from a collection of essays by Henry Fairlie:
“Even in the louche world of Fleet Street,” Jeremy McCarter writes in the introduction to this collection, Fairlie “distinguished himself: he drank; his finances were a crime against responsibility; his charm and darkly handsome looks availed him of endless affairs.”
In its evolution from a physical description to a social one, louche is reminiscent of its French cousin gauche, which literally means “left,” as in “left-handed.” (The ancient superstition about left-handedness also survives in the metaphorical meaning of sinister, Latin for “left.”)
Louche is less common in speech than in writing. What is common, at least in the United States in recent years among people under, say, 35, is a newish usage of sketchy to mean . . . well, louche. Most of the major dictionaries* define sketchy only the way I learned it and still use it: rough, incomplete, “resembling a sketch.” But as linguist Mark Liberman wrote in Language Log earlier this year, sketchy has acquired the additional—or perhaps replacement—meaning of “questionable, iffy, untrustworthy, unsafe, poor quality, creepy, deprecated.” Examples include “a sketchy neighborhood” and “a sketchy driving record.” (Louche, by contrast, is generally used only to describe people.)
Commenters on the Language Log unofficially antedate the louche use of sketchy back to the 1970s; for my own part, I started noticing it only in the last eight to ten years. (And I always assumed it was a mistake.) Grant Barrett provides a plausible origin of the term in the vocabulary of crystal-meth users; it’s supported by Urban Dictionary’s users (of course).
I enjoy a good semantic shift, but as long as conflicting definitions—“resembling a sketch” is not a synonym for “creepy”—are still in circulation, there’s a high likelihood of confusion. The situation reminds me of the idiom “on the up-and-up.” I’ve always known the expression to mean only one thing: “honest,” “ethical”—the opposite of louche, in fact. But it turns out that not everyone agrees.
* Merriam-Webster’s is the only major dictionary that provides the newer, colloquial definition.