I'm a loser, baby.
September 27, 2004 3:15 PM   Subscribe

I've never understood. Is loser an all-American, classless and politically neutral term of derision, or is it predominantly used by people who tend to place a high value on the importance of winning and success, i.e. significantly more likely to admire capitalism and be critical of more cooperative and less competitive frames of mind ? [More inside.]

As opprobium goes, loser seems much stronger and more insulting in American culture than its equivalents (failure, for instance) in less competitive cultures. I get the impression it means someone who would have liked to succeed but was either not up to the challenge or incapable of making the necessary effort and is therefore somehow "pathetic" or "sad" in the contemporary colloquial British sense. Or does it include those who voluntarily declined to compete and are quite happy and comfortable with that decision?

From my particular viewpoint, I'd expect the American usage of loser to correlate loosely with the right/left political spectrum. Or are all these conjectures typically and obtusely European and is it just as universal as jerk or asshole?
posted by MiguelCardoso to Society & Culture (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're overanalyzing.

It just conveys the notion that th person is question is a screw-up. These days (perhaps) it's leveled more often at people who think they're smarter than they actually are (ie: a definition you cite). That's because as a slang term it was given a new lease on life with the advent of InterNet -- it was the perjorative of choice among System Administrators owing to its similarity to "user". ;)
posted by RavinDave at 3:38 PM on September 27, 2004

It's just a general term of opprobrium. I'd define it as "pathetic in a way that inspires agressive contempt", but it doesn't carry a specific message about why someone sucks (unlike, say, "dumbass"). It was youth slang until fairly recently, so given how that demographic skews politically it probably came from the left.

Feel free to draw conclusions about a culture in which "loser" resonates as a epithet, though.
posted by lbergstr at 3:43 PM on September 27, 2004

I think it's most popularly applied to people in these situations. Mix n Match as you will.

Dropped out of high school
Dropped out of college
Working for minimum wage
Living in parents basement
Hooked on Everquest
Drummer in a local band
In jail
In juvie
Huffing gas
Huffin spray paint
Pregnant at 16
Pregnant at 17 by somebody else

Homework: Watch Citizen Ruth
posted by pieoverdone at 3:55 PM on September 27, 2004

You might enjoy the book Loser by Clark Humphrey to see how lower-culture in the US became a brief fad and fascination. Loser just means someone who you dislike because, as lbergstr says, they suck. There's a tone of "you don't do anything, you're not worth anything" implicit, but there's not a relative-worth assesment. So, for example, saying "Bill Gates is a loser" sounds a bit more off than "Hank the Angry Drunken Dwarf is a loser" since even if you dislike Bill Gates, he's definitely acocmplished a few things. You can, however, be a loser in a variety of realms, so Bill Gates could easily be a loser if you were talking about, say, sex appeal. The closest approximation I can think of is schlemiel or schmo in Yiddish.
posted by jessamyn at 4:04 PM on September 27, 2004

There is less of a connotation of "you are one who NEVER WINS, and we all know that WINNING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING" and more of plain old "pathetic jerk."

And it would generally not be expanded to "those who voluntarily declined to compete." We call those people "dirty hippies" instead. (Kidding. Mostly.)
posted by bcwinters at 4:05 PM on September 27, 2004

I don't think there's very much off-sounding about "Bill Gates is a loser", depending on context. I could see applying "loser" to someone who values success conventionally defined to the exclusion of much else, for that matter.
posted by kenko at 4:25 PM on September 27, 2004

I think in some circles, though, loser becomes the epithet by which some of the hypercompetetive draw distinction. See, for example, the title character in Henry's List of Wrongs, pre-transformation.
posted by weston at 4:31 PM on September 27, 2004

among the americans i know it's a pretty mild epithet which you can either mean literally (like in the cases pieoverdone cites) or teasingly (like when your friend locks his keys in the car on date) or like jessamyn and lbgstr suggest, generally dismissively to refer to someone who just sucks.

you are very much overanalyzing. it took the place of nerd when nerds supposedly got their revenge and became cool.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:08 PM on September 27, 2004

posted by stonerose at 5:20 PM on September 27, 2004

what kind of loser question is this? ; >

what crush, and others said. It's used all sorts of ways, depending on context.

People definitely use it about financial things/money a lot tho--as in "Joe's such a loser. He could have bought XY stock at the insider price, but didn't file the papers on time." "What a loser--he quit his job a week before they gave out the year-end bonuses." "I'm such a loser--If i had bought my plane tickets a day later, they would have been 300 dollars cheaper."
posted by amberglow at 5:21 PM on September 27, 2004

Loser (Born)
posted by Shane at 5:48 PM on September 27, 2004

Miguel, you should know that "America" is a vast thing. It might help for people responding to these kinds of questions to state their region as well as their generation. Also, for this question too perhaps their class context.

In hyper-competitive areas, yes "loser" is said with strong derision, a sign that your deeds make you not worthy of being part of the group. I've seen this term used in, for example, MBA environments, investment banking circles, entrepreneurial circles, (Manhattan) social circles to be shorthand for someone who is at the bottom of the ladder with a high expectation that they will drop-off.

I dont think you are over-analyzing it. I too see it used in the sense that crush-on-astick points out, but that seems to be more of a playful adoption by youth culture of something that can still carry meaning in the right environment. Also, that it can be used as an epithet by your friends I dont think adds much information.

The question might be best re-stated as: If a *stranger* calls another stranger a loser, what does that signify? It is not the same as "jerk." Its an attempt to put the other, the object at a lower level, someone who is not even in the same class. If a friend of your was hurt by someone else (e.g. an ex-boyfriend) you might say "Forget about him, he was a total loser", that is, his actions and social conduct had no value and were of another sphere altogether.

I see it as more social than financial (though one can play into the other when financial status is tied to social standing), a category of such complete ineptness such as to be dismissed.
posted by vacapinta at 5:50 PM on September 27, 2004

Oh, those investment banker types are a bunch of uptight losers anyway; who cares what they think?
posted by willpie at 6:18 PM on September 27, 2004

soy un perdidor. I'm a loser, baby, so why don't you kill me.

I dunno, loserdom has it's priviliges. Once people have written you off, you're pretty much free to do as you please. I've always considered this tale of loserdom to be a personal bible.
posted by jonmc at 6:26 PM on September 27, 2004

I forgot. When you call someone a loser you can put your right hand to your forehead with the thumb and finger making an L.
posted by pieoverdone at 6:56 PM on September 27, 2004

jonmc, the comments about the character in that tale beating his twin out of the womb but it's all downhill from there reminds me of the opening of Things Invisible To See:
In the damp night of the womb, when millions of chromosomes are gearing up for the game of life, the soul of Willie says to the soul of Ben, "Listen, you can be firstborn and get out of this cave first if you'll give me everything else. Brains, charm, and good looks."
"Who knows what looks good?" murmurs Ben
"Okay, brains," says Willie. "Just give me the brains and you can have everything else."
They agree that Willie should have what the world calls brains: that is, a highly charged left hemisphere that will make him a master of languages, mathematics, and train schedules. He will be right-handed and a rich man.
To Ben go the sinister mysteries of the left hand and the dark meadows of the right hemishphere, where clocks lose their numbers and all roads lead to everywhere.
Who knows what losses are really losses?
posted by weston at 7:42 PM on September 27, 2004

When you call someone a loser you can put your right hand to your forehead with the thumb and finger making an L.

Only if you're playing one of the mean girls in a movie about high school.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 9:10 PM on September 27, 2004

I think it has something to do with cocaine nosejobs and a driveby body pierce.
posted by raaka at 4:04 AM on September 28, 2004

Reminds me of a time I was riding on public transport. It was one of those big articulated ones and I was near the middle. We were pulling off from a stop when I heard someone pounding on the side of the bus. Despite several people shouting at the driver to stop, the bus pulled off anyway. Since we were out in the sticks, it was going to be at least a half-hour to 45 minute wait for the next bus.
I looked down through the doors to see the hapless, would-be passenger glaring angrily at us as we pulled away. Against my will, I began to chuckle uncontrollably - for emblazoned on his shirt in huge block letters was one word:

posted by black8 at 4:47 AM on September 28, 2004

Listen to Beck, and you will gradually understand the deeper concept of Loser in the US, and not just the song of the same name, but most of his albums (minus Mutations and Sea Change perhaps). His lyrics and music are all about the tottering junkpile of pop culture rubble that the middle to lower classes exist on.
posted by picea at 7:56 AM on September 28, 2004

Migs: send me an email - surely you got a gmail invite?
posted by dash_slot- at 10:14 AM on September 28, 2004

« Older Travelling with Laptop   |   Voter Registration Confirmation Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.