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Selective comprehension

Posted by Ward on September 03, 2004

In Reply to: Selective comprehension posted by Lotg (OZ) on September 02, 2004

: : : : I used this expression in an email recently, and then tried to get some information about its origin. There is a reference to Hamlet, but little else I could find. Any thoughts on when this entered our lexicon?

: : : Hamlet (II, ii, 115-116)
: : : "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculties! in form and moving, how express and admirable! in action like an angel! in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!........Man delights not me; no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so."

: : How did we get from Hamlet to calling a pretty woman a piece of.........?

: Well, I dunno, but I have to admit - "What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason...... etc" somehow has a far more charming ring to it than "you're a real piece of work".

: The thing is that with this particular phrase, the listener/reader needs to be clear about the context, because it can be a compliment OR an insult. It can go either way. I've heard it used in a derogatory way as well as a complimentary way. And - I have to admit to Ward, that the first time I read it, I blinked and thought twice and actually considered which it was - ie. compliment or insult. But knowing the writer is a gentleman, and ensuring I was clear on the context, I assumed it to be a compliment.

: Selective comprehension??? Possibly.

It is a compliment..........saying that someone is a real piece of work is normally an affectionate way of saying they are out of the ordinary (in a positive way).