Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Louche and Louching

The other day, I was lying in bed, sipping a Campari, when it occurred to me to wonder where the word louche came from. I imagined that it had something to do with luxury, and fell back to sleep. Which didn't help the Campari.

I was very wrong, because louche means cross-eyed. Or it did once. To be precise there was a Latin word luscus, which meant one-eyed. The feminine was lusca, from which the French got lousche, which meant cross-eyed or squinting. And then louche.

Louche came into English in 1819, but it didn't mean what it means now. It had nothing to do with Camparis in bed. Instead it meant oblique, asquint, Not Straight-Forward. So the first usage is:

There is some~thing louche about him, which does not accord with the abandon of careless, intimate intercourse.

(Intercourse didn't mean what it does now either, lest you misunderstand Wordsworth's "The dreary intercourse of daily life").

For a good century, it seems louche kept its French meaning, but added to it the idea of being opaque, unclear and therefore dishonest. Only slowly, very slowly did it start to mean raffish, rakish, dissolute and bedbound Campari. This is recent enough, that the OED still doesn't mention that meaning.

But there is another meaning of louche, and this I didn't know at all until I was checking all this up. Louche can be a verb.

I don't know if you drink much pastis. Or ouzo? Or raki? Or absinthe? Or anything flavoured with aniseed. If you do, you should know of the strange thing that happens when you add water, for the beautiful clear liquid suddenly turns cloudy, and milky, and opaque. This is known as louching.

It can be known as the ouzo effect, but louching is a much better word, and it allows you to louchely louche your louche drink.

Next time it won't be Campari.

By the way, another term for louching is "spontaneous emulsification", which reminds me of this song, because I really don't think he does know what emulsified means.


  1. Dear Mark
    I was given your book, The Elements of Eloquence, and wanted to drop you a line to say how much I'm enjoying it. It would probably be preferable if was pouring some of my new learning into this note, however this is a quick (unimpressive) line to say thank you for making me laugh out loud. I am particularly enjoying your little asides, such as, "You're welcome" at the bottom of page 116.
    I teach some very bright boys so will aim to liven up my English lessons by peppering them with anadiplosis et al... I'll maybe avoid enallage for now. Incidentally, it's a central London school- would you ever consider visiting us to do a talk? It would be wonderful to hear from you.
    Very Best
    Hannah Verney

  2. Bonjour Mark. Do you know if louche (ladle), as in 'moulé à la louche', has any link to louche (crosseyed)?

  3. Hi Mark, I'm sure you are familiar with the excessively bohemian painter who always took the road less travelled: Too-louche Low-trek. Now may I ask a question: Is there an edition of The Etymologicon which has an index? I keep recalling details I think I've read there and not being able to find them.
    David Dale

    1. I'm afraid there isn't. There probably should be, but I'm much too lazy. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

  4. Hi Mark, I'm a great fan of your books and I read The Etymologicon last year. Since discovering your blog, I have seen that you are regularly lavished upon with richly deserved praise, so I thought this time I'd give you a little criticism to balance things out :)

    You say in The Etymologicon that Italians refer to gypsies as Walachians. No we don't. We refer to them as Zingari, which, I am reliably informed, comes from the Greek Tsingaroi, which was the name of an ancient Anatolian tribe. So according to us gypsies aren't Egyptian or Romanian. They are Turks.

    Don't take this personally. Yours are still the best books on rhetoric and the English language that I have read in a very long time :) love, Elisa

  5. Une louche is also a ladle in French. Haven't made the connection yet, but after reading your exploration of the word, I am still looking..

  6. Hi Mark,

    Great Entry! I found "A Game of Chicken" to be very similar to "Louche and Louching." Similar because both readings focused on the derivatives and evolution of specific terms like "louche" and "poule." Drawing attention to "Poule," it began as the term for chicken, later meaning "pot of money," then encountering a spelling change to "pool" and indicating a general collection. I also thought the title "A Game of Chicken" was interesting. You used it to introduce the use of the term "poule" when gambling and today, the term "chicken" not only refers to poultry, but also to a game of conflict. Two players speed toward each other to what could be a head-on collision. The player who swerves away from their oncoming opponent is dubbed as the "chicken." In this case, "chicken" indicates a coward. See... yet another derivative :).
    -Alejandra H.

  7. wow. thanks for the article. For some reason I thought it meant lazy douche...which seems to fit.