Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Chic alors!

I intended to write something about chic in my last post but one since it would crop up naturally in a piece about a Frenchwoman, but I found that there is more to the word than I had thought. The OED categorises it, rather oddly, as slang, but gives it a lot of space:

[F. chic, of uncertain origin; it has been variously referred to the German schick tact, skill, and viewed as an abbreviation of chicane.]
A. n. Artistic skill and dexterity; ‘style’, such as gives an air of superior excellence to a person or thing.
1856 LEVER Martins of Cro' M. 321 The French have invented a slang word.. and by the expression ‘Chic’ have designated a certain property, by which objects assert their undoubted superiority over all their counterfeits. 1882 M. E. BRADDON Mt. Royal II. ix. 178 She had no chic. 1887 SIR R. H. ROBERTS In the Shires i. 12 There is an air of chic and high tone about him. 1888 Pall Mall G. 6 Sept. 4/2 Her voice is sweet and her delivery artistic, but she is wanting in what the French call ‘chic’ an untranslatable word, denoting an indispensable quality.

B. adj. [Not so used in French.] ‘Stylish’, in the best fashion and best of taste.
1879 Print. Trades Jrnl. XXVI. 14 What they term ‘Fashionable Chic Note’. 1880 OUIDA Moths I. 44 They are all chic, you know. 1887 Lady 20 Jan. 38/3 The ladies of New York.. think no form of entertainment so chic as a luncheon party.

chic, n. and adj. As the second element in compounds: the style or look associated with a specified lifestyle or subculture (now esp. one which might seem unlikely as a source of inspiration) regarded or appropriated as fashion. Cf. radical chic, punk chic, heroin chic n.
1961 Ironwood (Mich.) Daily Globe 25 July 7/6 (advt.) Deep country chic from our ‘Landed Jantzens’ collection for late summer on. The look: woodsy and casual. 1974 Black World June 33/2 Howard University, which is apparently a hotbed of lumpen, field nigger, proletariat, professional street-nigger chic. 1984 Sounds 29 Dec. 13/6 Add as an accessory a wooden club (for terrace chic). 1987 I. SINCLAIR White Chappell Scarlet Tracings i. 13 His skull was shaven, deathrow chic, and was so massive and burdened with unassimilated information that it tipped aggressively forward, almost onto his chest. 1991 Elle (U.S. ed.) July 112 With that change comes the fast, free, and uncontrived appeal of biker chic. 1995 i-D Nov. 64/1 Our popular culture is shot through with images of junkie chic. 2001 Yahoo! Internet Life July 42/4 When major fashion labels started making laptop bags, we knew geek chic was here to stay.

In spite of last month’s draft additions, the OED still seems to be lagging behind current usage. It was correct to point out that the French don’t use it quite as we do, to mean ‘stylish’, but it is also true is that nowadays this is the meaning we nearly always give to it; the OED’s second, B, definition should come first. A typical use would be the description of one of the gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, which featured streams of water running along channels covered with steel gratings, as looking like a rather chic sewage farm.

The story of the sign on a tweed jacket in the window of a Paris tailor describing it as très chic, très snob, presque cad is probably apocryphal.

Harrap gives the English equivalent of Chic alors as Fine! or Great! but I think How about that! is nearer.

P.S. I was wrong to include 'chic' under gallicisms here. We adopted it more than 150 years ago.

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