Piece of work

Pain in the toolbox?

Dear Word Detective: Where does the phrase “piece of work” come from, as in “That guy is a piece of work.” — Kevin.

That’s an interesting question. I’ve been trying to remember when I first heard “piece of work” used in the sense you mention, and I think it was probably in the late 1960s or early 70s, possibly in a gritty cop movie such as “The French Connection” or “Bullitt.”

“Piece of work” as used in your example is definitely a derogatory phrase, usually meaning “a person of dubious or unpleasant character” or “someone particularly difficult to deal with” (“My boss steals our sandwiches from the employee fridge. He’s a real piece of work”). This use of the phrase is considered colloquial or informal, so a search of Google News, for instance, finds only a few examples of the phrase used in this derogatory sense, almost all in comments on news articles from cranky readers.

It is far more common in such searches to find “piece of work” used in the more standard sense of “a product of work” or “a creation,” especially a work of art, literature or the like (“She was indeed very proud that she had finished her book… Also she thought that it was a good piece of work,” Virginia Woolf, 1915). This is the original sense of the phrase, in common use since the late 15th century and made famous by William Shakespeare in his play Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” This sense is still very much in use today (“‘Hunger’ … is a superbly balanced piece of work, addressing the passion of Irish Republican martyr Bobby Sands,” Village Voice, March 2009).

By the mid-16th century, however, another sense of “piece of work” had arisen, meaning “a difficult task” or a situation that posed a serious challenge (“To perswade them to hearken to a treaty would prove a tough piece of worke,” 1619). By the beginning of the 19th century, this sense had broadened into a figurative use of “piece of work” to mean “a fuss, ruckus or commotion” (“What are you making all this piece of work for…?”, Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit, 1843).

Perhaps because Shakespeare had so famously equated “piece of work” with “human being” (and because knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays was once a mark of a good education), use of “piece of work” in the third, derogatory sense to mean “an unpleasant person” is actually much older than one might expect. The earliest citation for this sense in the Oxford English Dictionary, in fact, is from way back in 1713, and uses the phrase “piece of work” in a tone of scathing contempt (“I believe your Lordship will have nothing to do with him, he being a whidling, dangerous, piece of work and not to be trusted”). The use of negative adjectives before “piece of work,” as in that example, was once necessary to convey the desired meaning, but in recent decades just plain, unadorned “piece of work” applied to a person has come to be regarded as negative. Today it’s assumed that the person described as a “piece of work” is not being favorably compared, as in Hamlet, to an angel.

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