A piece of work is a phrase that dates back to Shakespeare’s time, however, it has taken on an idiomatic meaning in addition to its literal meaning. We will examine the definitions of a piece of work, where this term came from and some examples of its use in sentences.
The literal meaning of the term a piece of work is a work is the product produced through someone’s efforts. However, a piece of work is also used as an idiom to describe someone who is unpleasant, dishonest, hard to deal with, of low character. When used in this fashion, a piece of work is a derogatory phrase. The term is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties…” In this case, the term is used literally. Around the turn of the twentieth century, the term was used in Britain to describe someone hard to deal with or of low character in the phrase a nasty piece of work. The term migrated to the United States, where by the 1970s it was used without the modifier nasty, and simply evolved into the idiom a piece of work or sometimes, a real piece of work.
“To me what’s important in a piece of work, whether it’s leatherwork or painting, is that it operates on more than one level,” Jackson said. (The Sheridan Press)
While Ellis makes the reserved Pumpkin the most endearing character, and Abercrumbie is all slinky moves and smoky voice as Silver, McGhee’s Blue—albeit frighteningly intense—is such a self-centered, nasty piece of work that I found it impossible to care about him or what happens to him. (The Hyde Park Herald)
“He’s a piece of work sometimes, but he’s a good dog,” he said. (The Daily Tar Heel)