Recently, I came across another interesting example of borrowed-and-transformed: “louche.” I had supposed that “louche” meant the same thing in both its parent language, French, and in ours. Not at all.
The meaning of “louche” is nicely put by the Oxford English Dictionary: Disreputable or sordid in a rakish or appealing way.
This, I thought, was the epitome of louche:
How did a disreputable, suspicious looking and sleazy person in French eyes become an appealingly rakish person in ours? I can only surmise, but I think it must be the result of that person also being, or seeming, French.
Imagine some sleazy character, shady, untrustworthy, shifty-eyed, disreputable, sneaky, duplicitous. You could conjure up any number of imaginary types, from a sinister manipulator along the lines of Richard III to Peter Lorre’s Cairo in The Maltese Falcon. Now, imagine that person as French or, at least, French in style (as you would if you described him as louche). Your villain is now a great deal less threatening, menacing, nasty; in fact, however threatening, menacing, nasty he remains, there still is something charming about him.
(Yes, stereotyping is a sort of prejudice. But it cannot be avoided if we are considering a human characteristic in the abstract. If we hear or read of someone described only as French or Chinese, as WASP or black, as Jewish or Methodist, or whatever, the image that comes to mind is, by definition, a stereotype. Fortunately, stereotypes are fluid. They adjust as our experience and understanding mature; we even can consciously work at changing them.)
Just as the stereotype of the charming Frenchman is likely the mechanism by which the French louche became the English louche,” my guess is that the stereotype of the reserved Englishman is behind the transformation of the English smoking jacket to le smoking.
(Like anyone trying to write stuff in the 21st century, I had to waste time and mental energy trying to figure out how to phrase my ideas, above, in gender-neutral terms. I gave it up – not only because I am weary of it, it’s a stupid charade, but because I realized that most of the adjectives I used as synonyms of “louche” are used to describe women much less frequently than they are used to describe men.
A gender-related social issue lurks there, far more pertinent than the difference between louche and louche, but I am not competent enough to unravel it.)