She’s a piece of work: talking about people you don’t like (1)

One blue and one red wooden figurine leaning into each other under speech bubbles on white surface, purple background
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by Liz Walter

Looking at tweets about a UK politician recently, I was struck by how many colourful terms we have for insulting people, so I thought that would be a good topic for my next couple of posts!

If we describe someone as a piece of work, we mean that they behave unpleasantly (often in a rather outrageous way). The UK term a nasty piece of work is similar, but focuses more on the person’s general character than on specific behaviour:

She tried to pinch your boyfriend? She’s a piece of work, isn’t she?

Stay away from Paul. He’s a nasty piece of work.

A great adjective to describe a very unpleasant person is obnoxious:

He’s lovely but his brother is obnoxious.

If you describe someone as a lowlife, you mean that they are involved in criminal activity or other behaviour you disapprove of. An even stronger word for a bad person is scumbag or scum. The phrase the scum of the earth means the worst type of people it is possible to imagine:

I’m sick of him and his lowlife friends.

My landlord is a complete scumbag.

People who hurt animals are the scum of the earth.

If someone’s behaviour is completely unacceptable, we can say that they or their actions are beyond the pale, while a very emphatic way of saying that someone’s character or behaviour could not be worse is to call them the lowest of the low:

Starting a fight at a funeral really is beyond the pale.

They target elderly people with their scams. They really are the lowest of the low.

A slimeball is a person you find unpleasant and rather disgusting. In US English a rat fink is either someone who is generally considered obnoxious or someone who has given information about you to the police:

I always thought her uncle was a slimeball.

One day I’ll find that rat fink and teach him a lesson!

There are several phrases for people we consider to be worthless. A common one is a waste of space. More humorously, we might use the terms a waste of skin or an oxygen thief:

Don’t expect Chris to help you – he’s a total waste of space.

I’ll be happy never to see that oxygen thief again!

This post has looked at general insults. Please feel free to suggest others (but no swear words, please!). My next two posts will cover some words and phrases that are used for people with specific character flaws. I’m not sure what it says about us that we have such a rich vocabulary for judging other people!

20 thoughts on “She’s a piece of work: talking about people you don’t like (1)

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, there are lots of joky ones like this (some ruder than others!). ‘As much use as an ashtray on a motorbike’ is another good one.

    2. Alex

      You reminded me of some Russian sayings which mean basically the same 🙂 For instance, “he’s about as much use as an umbrella for a fish/as a case without a handle/as a fifth leg for a dog”. But a chocolate teapot is my favourite since today 🙂

  1. Marco

    Hi, I really liked the post. I just wanted to share with all of you an experience about this:
    Someday in College (half of 2020) I discussed with my classmates, it was a pandemic time and all was on phone. I’m not used to say “swear words” for several years, so, when I discussed with my friends on Whatsapp I aplied this strategy: I began to attack my friends and classmates on the chat group with a “white glove”, idk if that’s a correct way to say it in English, but follow me please:

    After a pair of days of the discussion, I talked about this with my brother; I received apologies from some classmates, even from those who I thought would never apologize to me. Just then, I realized the magnitude of the catastrophe:

    I signed the lost many relationships and I couldn’t recover several of them. It was so painful to recognize the size of my mistake…

    So, what does this have to do with your post Miss Liz Walter? The issue was that (and it continues feeling hard), I told/wrote several of these phrases against my own friends, my classmates, my colleagues, my world, just so sad, to remember this and writing it.

    I only share with all of you this experience because I’d like to warn you about the darts that we can say…

    Greetings, from Mexico.

    1. Liz Walter

      Thank you for sharing this experience. It’s definitely not a good idea to use most of these phrases directly to the person you’re describing!

    1. Liz Walter

      Thanks, Victorino – just click on my name or the names of my colleages to see lots more posts like this!

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