Working out just what a 'piece of work' is

Two contradictory usages of the same idiom prompt the Monitor's language columnist to do a little research.

If, within a 24-hour period, I hear two people use the same idiom with two nearly opposite meanings, do I have a research project on my hands?

Maybe so.

The other day a shopkeeper I was chatting with mentioned that the customer with whom he'd just been on the phone – well, potential customer, since the person hadn't bought anything yet – was "a piece of work": quirky, with some very specific interests, and a great sense of freedom to keep calling the shop, and calling, and calling.

Amusing, perhaps, rather than annoying – but still not someone you'd bring home to dinner.

But the evening before, I'd heard a once-troubled teenager who had turned out very well, to all appearances, referred to as "a piece of work."

A friend had met the former teenager and then written to the woman's stepmother, a college friend, to note what a good impression the stepdaughter, whom she'd essentially brought up, had made.

The stepmother's response left my friend puzzled: The stepdaughter is "a piece of work," she said, adding that she loves her very much. Her exact words recalled a phrase I used to hear in high school – a phrase invariably followed by "but": "I love her to death, but that dress she wore Saturday night..."

What's going on here?

Do we have a migratory metaphor, one that once had a specific meaning but now means whatever the speaker thinks it means? Even dictionaries disagree on whether "piece of work," in reference to a person, is a compliment.

The best-known use of the phrase may be from Shakespeare's "Hamlet": "What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty!" There's a large dollop of irony here, however. "Piece of work" does not equal "masterpiece."

The straightforward sense of piece of work ("His latest film is a fine piece of work") goes way back. But blogger Evan Morris, at The Word Detective, has traced the phrase in the sense of "a difficult task" back to no later than 1619: "To perswade them to hearken to a treaty would prove a tough piece of worke." Charles Dickens used the idiom to mean "ruckus" or "commotion."

But, Mr. Morris adds, "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."

Morris cites a usage example from 1713, in the Oxford English Dictionary: "I believe your Lordship will have nothing to do with him, he being a whidling, dangerous, piece of work and not to be trusted." That nails it for me, even if I don't know what "whidling" means.

Referring to someone as "a piece of work" invites the question, whose work? The kind of person who gets described as "a piece of work" seems the opposite of the sort to whom one says, "Someone did a good job of raising you."

But as the prodigal son's elder brother had to learn, parents are blessed with the ability to love their more demanding children as much as their "good" ones.

And so I will let go of my puzzlement about "piece of work." Maybe the stepmother really did mean something like "masterpiece."

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