lowlife, n. and adj.
Pronunciation: Brit. Hear pronunciation/ˈləʊlʌɪf/, U.S. Hear pronunciation/ˈloʊˌlaɪf/
Frequency (in current use): Show frequency band information
Inflections: Plural lowlifes, (rare) lowlives.
Origin: Formed within English, by compounding. Etymons: low adj., life n.
Etymology: < low adj. + life n.
In sense A. 2b (especially in early use) frequently occurring in representations of the speech of Jewish characters, although no direct model appears to exist in Yiddish.
- Usually in form low life. The social world of the lower classes; poor or humble society. In later use typically with the implication of coarseness, squalor, or disreputable behaviour. Cf. low-living adj. and n. (b) at low adv. Compounds 1b.
1712 Spectator 1 52 These Laws were enacted by..Artizans and Mechanicks..; and..there is something in them which gives us a pretty Picture of low Life.
1784 Gentleman’s Mag. Aug. 580/1 Such greatness of mind is rare to be found in low life in any country.
1821 Edinb. Mag. May 436/2 The scenes in Goldsmith’s Alehouse, &c. are like the finest Dutch pictures of low life.
1847 T. H. Fielding Knowl. & Restoration Old Paintings 183 His [sc. Adrian Brouwer’s] subjects were always taken from low life, as conversations of peasants, their feasts.., drunken quarrels, [etc.].
1939 Life 4 Dec. 48/2 (caption) Society swells visit Nick’s saloon for a taste of low life.
2003 C. Wiegand F. Fellini iii. 64 A poet of Roman low life, Pasolini..[pays] particular attention to the dialect spoken by the prostitutes.
a. With plural agreement. Frequently with the. Lowlife people (see sense B. 1) as a class.
1820 W. Hazlitt in London Mag. Sept. 254/1 The conversation of low life is nothing but rudeness. They contradict you without giving a reason.
1856 Eclectic Mag. Oct. 223/2 To one portion of the ‘low life’ of London, that portion which coins its soul for drachmas,..we can only allude.
1964 Amer. Folk Music Occas. No. 1. 7 It would be an error to conclude that such songs are found only among the low-life.
1986 Cincinnati Mag. Mar. 6/2 Politicians.., magazine editors and other lowlife.
2005 J. Singleton Skinny B, Skaz & Me xii. 182 Drugged up most of them. Bloody low life. They don’t want rehab. They want..a right arse kicking.
b. A despicable or contemptible person, esp. one involved in criminal activity. Also as a term of abuse. Cf. low-lifer n.
1909 Sat. Evening Post 11 Dec. 31/3 ‘Yes,’ Goldblatt replied… ‘That lowlife has got a wife. But who or what she is nobody don’t know.’
1910 Western Monthly Oct. 39/2 ‘Oi, oi, oi,’ he moaned, tugging at his beard. ‘Oh, them low lifes, them loafers, them robbers!’
1920 ‘H. Hall’ Egan i. 18 You great big bluff! You great big bum! Lowlife!
1959 H. Pinter Birthday Party (1960) iii. 50 Keep an eye open for low-lives, for schnorrers and for layabouts.
2011 D. Magowan Gerrity’s Law 5 His parents were lowlifes and he was raised as a lowlife.
- Of a person: of low social status, lower-class; coarse, vulgar, disreputable; (later also) despicable, contemptible.
1725 ‘C. Comb-Brush’ Every Man mind his Own Business 30 Thus did this low Life Lady apply her favourite Phrase so oddly, that the Ladies at our end of the Town have nick-nam’d her the Lady in Life.
1742 H. Fielding Joseph Andrews II. iv. vi. 207 There was always something in those low-life Creatures which must eternally distinguish them from their Betters.
1794 ‘P. Pindar’ Pathetic Odes 28 Behold Saint Crispin’s picture, strange to tell, The low-life cobbler’s tutelary Saint.
1827 Vade-mecum India to Europe by way of Egypt 48 The English vessels to be met with are all of the worst sort.., and commanded by very low-life men.
1885 ‘F. Anstey’ Tinted Venus 95 The peculiar stave by which a modern low-life Blondel endeavours to attract notice.
1910 G. B. Shaw Brieux 16 Servants, solicitors, and other low life personages.
1964 Eng. Stud. 45 368 Could minor low-life characters speak at once so feelingly and with our own voice, to their mistress, at a tragic climax?
2003 N. Rawles Crawfish Dreams (2004) ii. 28 I let some lowlife white criminals drive me from my home in Louisiana.
- Of, relating to, or characteristic of people of low social status, or people regarded as vulgar or disreputable; (of a place) frequented or inhabited by such people.
1728 J. Dalton Genuine Narr. Street Robberies 25 They..carried a Bottle of that Low-Life Liquor Gin, to keep their Hearts up, under the Low-Life Performance.
1762 E. Farneworth in tr. N. Machiavelli Wks. I. Pref. p. vi The language in general, is..full of vulgarisms, quaint sayings, and what the Italians call il modo basso, or low-life expression.
1861 M. B. Chesnut Diary 8 Dec. in C. V. Woodward Mary Chesnut’s Civil War (1981) xi. 260 Mr. Shuford, he goes fer low-life things—hurting people’s feelings.
1880 Amer. Bookseller 1 Sept. 168/2 ‘Rogues and Vagabonds’ is the new low-life story which Mr. George R. Sims has begun.
1939 Time 18 Dec. 21/1 There can be nothing very awful about even such ostentatiously ‘low-life’ dives as the Nut Club in Greek Street.
1972 Listener 10 Aug. 184/3 Low-life action and local vernacular.
2011 C. Rearick Paris Dreams, Paris Memories i. 31 Guidebooks and memoirs..described some of the lowlife dens as fascinating attractions to be visited.