Most of us use the word lousy, meaning “bad, poor,” without thought as to where the word comes from. But unlike many words, the etymology of lousy is rather obvious and the metaphor underlying its current meaning is clear.
The word comes from louse and the original meaning was “infested with lice.” Louse, in turn, is from the Old English lus, and has cognates throughout the Germanic languages.
So in the late fourteenth century, William Langland could write in his 1377 B text of his poem Piers Plowman:
With an hode on his hed a lousi hatte aboue.
(With a hood on his head, a lousy hat above.)
But the figurative meaning of “bad, worthless, contemptible” appears almost as early. Geoffrey Chaucer, a contemporary of Langland’s, uses the figurative meaning in his Friar’s Tale:
A lowsy jogelour kan deceyve thee.
(A lousy juggler can deceive you.)
There is a more recent, albeit somewhat less common, sense of lousy that plays off the metaphor of infestation rather than the unhygienic insect itself. That is the use of the word to mean “teeming or swarming with, full of.” This sense arose in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. The journal The Spirit of the Times had this in its 4 March 1843 issue:
He was lousy with money, and dared any man to face him.
And the Democratic State Journal of Sacramento, California would write of a gold rush claim in October 1856:
The bed of the river is perfectly “lousy” with gold.
(The placing of the word in quotes is a giveaway that it is being used in a new meaning that the writer or editor does not expect the reader to be familiar with.)
We don’t see the original, literal meaning of lousy so much anymore. That’s probably because in our modern, ultra-hygienic society of disinfectants, soaps, and regular bathing lice, except for the occasional outbreak among schoolchildren, aren’t that big of a problem. But because the spelling of the word has remained the same and because the metaphorical meanings haven’t strayed too far from the literal, the etymology of the word is still easily recognizable.
“lousy, adj. and adv.,” “louse, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton