Posted by Bill on November 25, 2005
In Reply to: Piece of work posted by Bill on November 25, 2005
: : : : : I can't find any consensus on how the current usage of referring to a person as a 'piece of work' came to be. The origin is listed as Shakespear's Hamlet, but one forum user implied that it is always a compliment, and at least where I'm from (midwestern US), this is definitely NOT the case. I hear it used exclusively as a mild insult... 'yeah, he's a real piece of work,' 'what a piece of work,' etc. Any input?
: : : : It's an insult in other parts of the US, too. I've heard it on national TV. I don't know the origin.
: : : In the UK this would be 'he's a nasty piece of work'. Reversely, 'that's a good piece of work' is a compliment. I don't think a simple 'piece of work' is common here.
: : Shakespeare's Hamlet: "What a piece of work is man!" Hamlet speaks (sarcastically) of how wonderful mankind is, then says "And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me;..."
I think the usage here in The Colonies has a bit of both UK usages in it, with the adjectives omitted. "Nice piece of work" connotes that some ingenious effort was involved. "Piece of work" (UK "nasty" omitted)is used for someone who is obnoxious, but in a convoluted way. The idea being that it took the ingenuity of God to produce a character like him. It wouldn't be used on a murderer, but might well be used on an opportunist. The sort that my Jewish fiends might describe more colorfully: "He buys suits with rubber pockets so he can steal soup."