A low-life is a term for a person who is considered morally unacceptable by his or her community. Examples of people often labeled low-lives include aggressive panhandlers, bullies, criminals, drug dealers, freeloaders, hobos, gangsters, people associated with adhering to low culture, people who make constant use of profanities, prostitutes, pimps, scammers, sexual abusers, substance abusers, and thieves.
Often, the term is used as an indication of disapproval of antisocial or destructive behaviors, usually bearing a connotation of contempt and derision. This usage of the word dates to 1911. 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.
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.
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”–through the Elizabethan interest in cony-catching, up to William Burroughs' obsession with the hobo, bum, or urban outlaw, and through to the anti-heroes of Cyberpunk.
Such interest may have a sexual component, based on the subconscious equation of socially low status with lack of inhibitions, 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”.
- "Online Etymology Dictionary". Retrieved 2006-06-10.
- N. Flores-Gonzales, School Kids/Street Kids (2002) p. 107-11
- Gilbert Highet, Juvenal the Satirist (1962) p. 115
- B. Ford ed., The Age of Shakespeare (1973) p. 57
- James Campbell, This is the Beat Generation (1999) p. 6 and p. 39-41
- G. Lovink, Uncanny Networks (2004) p. 116
- Otto Fenichel, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis (1946) p. 96
- Petronius, The Satyricon (1986) p. 142
- Luc Sante, Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York (2003)