Posted by Smokey Stover on January 18, 2007
In Reply to: "rough customer" and "smooth customer" posted by ESC on January 18, 2007
: : question: Dear experts,
: : Could you comment on the meaning of the expressions "rough customer" and "smooth customer" - they are not antonymous in meaning, are they?
: : Thank you,
: : Yuri
: I have heard the first (in my part of the United States). "He's a rough customer." Meaning he is a bad guy, unsavory. I've never heard "smooth customer." I have heard "smooth operator." Meaning: 4 : excessively and often artfully suave : INGRATIATING. (Merriam-Webster)
"Rough" customers should not be thought of as the opposite of "smooth" customers, the latter having been well-characterized by ESC and her dictionary (s.v. smooth operator). It has long been the custom to replace common words like person, man, or even chap or fellow, with something less common, therefore more attention-getting. The Oxford English Dictionary has compiled a representative list of various kinds of "customer" that you won't necessarily see in the store.
s.v. customer "5. colloq. A person to have to do with; usually with some qualifying adjective, as ugly, awkward, queer, rum, etc.: 'chap', 'fellow'. Also used of animals.
1589 R. HARVEY Pl. Perc. 11 False witnes..is taken vp now for a custome of one lewd Customer. 1652 HEYLIN Cosmogr. To Rdr., Such a Countrey-customer I did meet with one. 1818 SCOTT Hrt. Midl. xxviii, An thou meetest with ugly customers o' the road. 1837 DICKENS Pickw. ii, Queer customers those monks. Ibid. xx, A precious seedy-looking customer. 1854 R. S. SURTEES Handley Cross xxxiv. 268 A light-coloured fox beat him so often as to acquire the name of the 'old customer'. 1863 Spring Lapl. 185 Certainly, a bull elk is an awkward customer when brought to bay. 1899 Westm. Gaz. 15 Feb. 9/2 Almost immediately a fox went away, and he proved to be a real customer."
Sometimes you will hear "cookie" used in a somewhat similar manner, although with a smaller range of attributes, e.g., She's a tough cookie. He's a sharp cookie. She's a cute cookie (though here we're bordering on synonyms for female, like dish, babe, etc.) Not too common a usage.
You may be interested in one of the meanings of customer which is now obsolete.
s.v. customer, "b. A common woman, prostitute. Obs.
1601 SHAKES. All's Well V. iii. 287, I thinke thee now some common Customer. 1604 -- Oth. IV. i. 123, I marry her! What? a customer!"