Don’t Louse This Up! Using Lousy in Everyday Speech

Pearson Scott Foresman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Lousy is a simple two syllable word that almost all native-English speaking Americans use. It’s not an “SAT word “ or a word you’re likely to encounter on the TOEFL. It probably won’t appear on your medical licensing test if you’re a doctor or a nurse, but it’s a word that your patients are likely to use. If you want to sound more natural and more like a native speaker, this is one to add to your everyday English.

You can go to google to hear the word. Here is a breakdown for easy pronunciation:

First syllable spelled “lou” rhymes with “cow.”

Second syllable: “sy” sounds like the way we say the letter “Z.” 

Here are a few examples:

“I’m happy with my new car, but I think I got a lousy deal. My cousin paid $2000 less for the same make and model.”

Doctor: Are you in pain?  Patient: Not exactly. I’m just tired and I feel lousy all the time.

“The painters did a lousy job.  They left paint on the windows, and you can see old stains.”

“The weather has been lousy all week. Even on the days when it hasn’t rained, it’s been too windy and cold to enjoy being outside.”

“My son had a lousy time on the school trip. He got car sick on the bus, another kid stole his lunch, and the teacher yelled at him because she thought he was trying to start a fight.”

“I feel lousy about what I said last week. I’m sorry. I really didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

Can you guess the meaning of lousy?

Lousy means bad, but in context it implies many things: incompetent, disappointing, unwell, not enjoyable, and more. The parameters of lousy are a bit vague, and may vary depending on context and the speaker.  For instance, a parent telling a child, “You are a lousy son,” sounds devastating, but “lousy” can also be used when you call in sick to work because you still haven’t recovered completely from your flu: “I don’t have fever today, but I’m still feeling lousy.” You can feel “lousy” as in physically not well, or you can feel “lousy” (bad) about something that happened because it was your fault. You could substitute other words such as guilty, terrible, bad, etc.

We can use the comparative: lousier or the superlative lousiest. Lousier would mean not as a good as someone who is probably already not very good at something:  Sally is a lousy bowler, but I’m even lousier at it than she is.

Lousiest, the superlative form, is sometimes used similarly to “worst.”  Here’s an example:

“I’ve seen a lot of lousy movies. But that was the lousiest movie I’ve seen in years!”

Where does “lousy” come from?

More than one of my students thought “lousy” was related to “lazy” because they sound somewhat similar.  It is not! 

“Lousy” literally means “to be infested with lice.”  Lice are the tiny insects that sometimes lay eggs in hair.  Those lice are called “head lice.” There are other kinds of lice as well that are even more disgusting. Usually an infestation involves hundreds of lice, so we generally use the plural form “lice.”  However, the singular form is “louse.” If you find one louse, you probably have an infestation of lice. 

Having head lice is a lousy experience! 

Sometimes we use the noun  “louse” as a pejorative to describe a person who behaves badly. Louse is usually used to describe someone with inconsiderate and/or unethical behavior.  Here are two examples:

“My boss is such a louse. He seems to take real pleasure in firing people and insulting the people who work for him.”

“I can’t believe Doris is back with Charley! He constantly cheats on her. What a louse!”

We would NOT use “louse” to describe a person who had done a lousy or incompetent job. For instance, you might fire someone for doing a lousy or incompetent job, but it doesn’t mean the person is a louse. Louse as an insult retains the quality of being a parasite.

We use the verb “delouse” to describe the action of getting rid of  lice:

“The adults  spent Thanksgiving weekend delousing the kids. Jane had picked up head lice at school, and gave it to all her cousins. Lousiest Thanksgiving ever, uh literally!” 

We don’t use “delouse” very much as a metaphor. It’s usually used literally.

We don’t use “louse” alone as a verb. However, we do use the phrasal verb “louse up” in a similar way to “mess up.”  “Louse up” sounds stronger than “mess up” and more serious. Here are some examples:

“This is our biggest client. We can’t afford to do anything that would louse up this deal.”

“Joe apologized for lousing up, but Meredith told him that he was a louse for cheating on her, and she would never forgive him.”

“I’m very proud you got the job. Now don’t do anything to louse this up!”

Can you think of a sentence using lousy, louse,  or louse up?  Feel free to leave a comment or ask a question.  If you’re looking for English lessons, check this out.