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Lowlife

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  • Lowlife—(1) a noun referring to a coarse or no-good person, and (2) an adjective meaning coarse or disreputable—has been in English for over two centuries. A few dictionaries still list the hyphenated low-life as the primary spelling, and as of late 2011, lowlife and low-life are neck and neck in current news publications. But the word will likely follow the trajectory of most English compounds and completely lose the hyphen sooner or later.

     

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    With or without a hyphen, lowlife is usually pluralized lowlifes (or low-lifes) rather than lowlives (or low-lives). Lowlifes may seem ungrammatical, but there is some precedent for it. For example, still lifes (the visual-arts term), nightlifes, and midlifes are more common than still lives, nightlives, and midlives. There are counterexamples, though, such as afterlives and half-lives.

    Examples

    Singular

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    Irene’s lowlife husband (Oscar Isaac) is due out of prison soon. [Chicago Tribune]

    A succession of low-life characters comes and goes. [Guardian]

    The cumulative effect of this Hoxton-set lowlife drama is pretty unedifying. [Independent]

    Only pure and titled dynasties allowed, no low-life presidents or colonels. [Bronstein at Large, San Francisco Chronicle]

    Plural

    Though he’s involved in criminal activity, Nucky signals a break from the lowlifes and shadowy characters on the fringe of polite society. [Wall Street Journal]

    The cast includes a number of lowlifes and mid-lifes. [National Post]

    Larraà­n surrounds his sociopath with a troupe of desperate low-lifes who operate a dingy cantina. [New York Press (link now dead)]

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