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A low-life (or lowlife) is a term for a person who is considered morally unacceptable by their community. Examples of people society often labels low-lives include aggressive panhandlers, bullies, criminals, drug dealers, freeloaders, hobos, gangsters, people who make constant use of profanities, prostitutes, pimps, scammers, sexual abusers and thieves.

Often, the term is used as an indication of disapproval of antisocial or self-destructive behaviors, usually bearing a connotation of contempt and derision. This usage of the word dates to 1911.[1] The long-term origins of the ideas behind this in the Western world trace back to ancient times with the distinction of high culture associated with aristocracy at the top of the social hierarchy who were regarded in aristocrat-dominated society as compared with low culture associated with commoners at the bottom of the social hierarchy that included many impoverished people among them.

In common usage, the term can also be used for people associated with adhering to low culture, or used to describe a crass, overly casual person who exhibit a lack of grace and refinement. In this sense, individuals do not necessarily need to be criminally destructive or hold ethically questionable views to qualify for the term.

Similar terms used for the same type of person include the Australian/New Zealand term feral.[2]


Upwardly mobile members of an ethnic group, committed to schooling, education and employment prospects, will often reject low-lives who instead opt (willingly or unwillingly) for street or gang life.[3]


The lure of the low-life for those in established social strata has been a perennial feature of western history: it can be traced from the Neronian aristocrat described by Juvenal as only at home in stables and taverns–"you'll find him near a gangster, cheek by jowl, mingling with lascars, thieves and convicts on the run"[4]–through the Elizabethan interest in cony-catching,[5] up to William Burroughs' obsession with the hobo, bum, or urban outlaw,[6] and through to the anti-heroes of Cyberpunk.[7]

Such interest may have a sexual component, based on the subconscious equation of socially low status with lack of inhibitions,[8] as with the Roman ladies described by Petronius: "Some women get heated up over the very dregs and can't feel any passion unless... among the lowest of the low".[9]


  1. ^ "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2006-06-10.
  2. ^ Examples of this usage can be found in such articles as Braunias, S.,. "The rise of anti-Jacinda Ardern ferals, fake news and its advocates," (New Zealand Herald, 16 July 2022, retrieved 27 September 2022) and "Furthermore, by refusing to condemn her Transport Minister for calling the protesters a “river of filth”, or the Speaker for describing them as “the biggest collection of ferals that I’ve seen”, Jacinda Ardern had clearly learned nothing from the 2016 US Presidential Primary, when Hillary Clinton alienated voters with her conceited description of grassroot Americans as “deplorables”.", in Newman, M., "New Zealand turns sinister," (New Zealand Centre for Political Research, 3 September 2022. Retrieved 27 September 2022.)
  3. ^ N. Flores-Gonzales, School Kids/Street Kids (2002) p. 107-11
  4. ^ Gilbert Highet, Juvenal the Satirist (1962) p. 115
  5. ^ B. Ford ed., The Age of Shakespeare (1973) p. 57
  6. ^ James Campbell, This is the Beat Generation (1999) p. 6 and p. 39-41
  7. ^ G. Lovink, Uncanny Networks (2004) p. 116
  8. ^ Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 96
  9. ^ Petronius, The Satyricon (1986) p. 142

Further reading[edit]

  • Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (2003)