The Grammarphobia Blog

A piece of work

Q: When did the phrase “a piece of work” begin to have negative connotations? The original meaning seems to have been entirely positive, but now dictionaries say it can refer to somebody or something outstanding as well as unpleasant. I would very much welcome your insights about this, as would the other poor souls who were discussing it at a recent get-together.

A: When your question popped into my in-box, I happened to be reading a book by the British novelist Angela Thirkell, written in the early 1950s. One of the characters, an admirer of powerful cars, is looking under the hood (or rather the “bonnet”) of a big gorgeous automobile, and when he emerges he says: “By Jove! it is a piece of work.”

Obviously, a rave review!

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s first citation for the noun phrase “piece of work” dates back to 1473, when it simply meant a product or something manufactured.

But it was often used in a positive way, as in this well-known excerpt from Hamlet (1604): “What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!”

By 1533, it was also being used to mean a difficult undertaking or task, a usage that in the 19th century was sometimes used metaphorically in a negative way (to mean a commotion or a disorderly fuss).

The expression was first used in a derogatory way to refer to an unpleasant person in 1713, according to the OED. Here’s the first published reference, from the manuscripts of the Duke of Portland:

“I believe your Lordship will have nothing to do with him he being a whidling, dangerous, piece of work and not to be trusted.” Often the phrase used in this sense appeared as “a nasty piece of work.”

So your answer is about 300 years ago.

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