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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.

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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."

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