According to the online Oxford English dictionary, a magnum opus is

a work of art, music, or literature that is regarded as the most important or best work that an artist, composer, or writer has produced.

Does there exist an opposite term (in the sense of the least important or worst work ever produced by someone)?

  • 1
    Juvenilia often applies, though the meaning isn't strictly what you ask for. – TimLymington Jun 12 '13 at 10:08
  • How about the neologistic phrases "minimus opus" or "opus minimus"? (My suggesting the latter is at my own peril, however, as other EL&U contributors may laugh me to scorn for putting the adjective before the noun, which may be "highly improper" in Latin word order! Frankly, I don't know, and I don't care. I think the latter, "opus minimus" has a certain ring to it.) – rhetorician Jun 12 '13 at 23:19
  • Queen Elizabeth II once had an annus horribilis apparently. Not quite what you're after in terms of a specific piece of work, but it seems to have fallen into common usage as a way of describing a particularly low period. – Stuart Allen Jun 13 '13 at 1:34
  • @rhetorician Opus (despite its -us ending) is a third-declension neuter noun, so the correct adjective would be minimum. Word order isn't as important as gender! – Andrew Leach Jun 13 '13 at 7:05
  • @AndrewLeach: I consider myself laughed to scorn! That's too bad, because when he was just a little shaver my son would sit on my lap while I read to him "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves." Whenever I came to the phrase "Open sesame," for some reason I read "Opus Minimus." How deluded I was. How good it is there are people--such as AndrewLeach--who take a stand against ignorance and set us straight in matters pertaining to Latin; who give cabalistic infants like me a much-needed kick in the derriere, particularly regarding third-declension neuter nouns. Thanks Andrew! – rhetorician Jun 13 '13 at 12:48

OED uses opus in eighteen definitions, and doesn't list a convenient phrase. (Ignore the red mark, that just positions the list)

list of "opus" phrases in OED

Accessible list: opus; opus alexandrium; opus anglicanum; opus areanum; opus consutum; opus deista; opus filatorium; opus magnum; opus sectile; opus signinum.

Thesaurus.com doesn't list a specific antonym.

So: make one up. I don't know whether parvulum is widely understood, but it appears in some macaronic Christmas carols, and using a phrase which is similar to magnum opus might give the general idea.

parvulum opus — poor or small work

  • Thanks Andrew! Actually, it doesn't have to have the word "opus" in it or come from Latin. "Near"-synonyms to magnum opus are masterpiece, masterwork, chef d'oeuvre, pièce de résistance, tour de force etc... I was wondering if a similar terminology existed for the opposite meaning. – Just Jun 12 '13 at 9:24

You might take a cue from theater reviews. There are so many epic failures (e.g., Damon Lindelof, Prometheus) that reviewers have to come up with new ways to describe them.

There are some relevant terms, though I don't know if any are as superlative as magnum opus. Possibly this is because we don't usually concern ourselves with relative degrees of failure or insignificance.

If you want a Latin word, opuscule is a good option. From Oxford dictionaries:

A small or minor literary or musical work.

That's very close to the opposite of a masterwork, and even has opus in it, but it's not at all a commonly used term (ODO notes that it is rare).

If you want a term that's more commonly used, the phrase in the definition above, minor work, is a good choice. Somewhat to my surprise, I couldn't find a good definition of the phrase, but it seems to me to be fairly common and has a transparent meaning. One representative usage:

King Stephen is one of Beethoven's minor works, and only its overture is performed with any frequency today.

"Newly Discovered Beethoven Handwritten One-Page Manuscript Auctioned And Sold For $100K", Realty Today, Dec 22, 2015

Looking at the "culmination of life's work" aspect of magnum opus, juvenilia might be a good choice. The formal definition is simply

Works produced by an author or artist while still young.

But there is also often an implication that such works are, themselves, somewhat immature, produced before the artist had achieved full mastery of their art. It also has the benefits of being both Latin and at least somewhat familiar.


If you are open to more creative language uses, marginalia in it's extended sense of "nonessential items" (M-W) might be stretched even further to cover an artist's nonessential or marginal works, borrowing a bit of literary cred from its similarity in sounds to the above-mentioned juvenilia. Or for a very creative choice, I will note that my auto-correct keeps suggesting magnum oops.

  • For what it’s worth, the OED calls opuscle “rare”, but not its more common form opuscule, which is the third frequency band not the second like the shorter version is. – tchrist Aug 4 at 4:59
  • @tchrist I linked to the ODO rather than OED, to avoid paywalls, and the ODO does preface the definition with "rare". I'm not sure whether its usage rankings are just less fine-grained than the OED's, or if something else is affecting the different judgments. – 1006a Aug 4 at 5:03
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    There's also a longer form, opusculum. Of the three opuscle seems to be the (really) rare one, but these are all educated terms in any event, if not especially erudite or recondite ones. – tchrist Aug 4 at 5:04
  • Hmm, perhaps the OED has simply stopped using adjectives for frequency, in favor of its frequency "bands"? The text for 3 dots says "This word belongs in Frequency Band 3. Band 3 contains words which occur between 0.01 and 0.1 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These words are not commonly found in general text types like novels and newspapers, but at the same they are not overly opaque or obscure. Nouns include ebullition and merengue, and examples of adjectives are amortizable, prelapsarian, contumacious, agglutinative, quantized, argentiferous..." – 1006a Aug 4 at 5:09
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    I agree, the bands are cooler—also clearer. Digging around some more, I think the rarity labels may be holdovers of past schemes, in the "not fully updated" entries. (Except opuscle is listed as rare, and it's fully updated...) The key to frequency doesn't give any equivalencies between such terms and the bands, which suggests either there isn't a systematic relationship or they just aren't using the adjectives anymore. (Thinking about the relative judgements of rarity in the OED vs ODO, I'm guessing that almost no words that are truly rare by OED standards are even in the ODO.) – 1006a Aug 4 at 5:23

The word "minuscule" can be used as a noun or an adjective.

By chance could it be Parvum Opus? Which basically means a minor work —not necessarily bad, though.

It's called a flop. From a search of "flop meaning" on Google:

verb
2. informal
(of a performer or show) be completely unsuccessful; fail totally.
"the show flopped in London"
synonyms: (I've edited this part for shows etc.)
be unsuccessful, fail, fall flat, be a disappointment, do badly, lose money, be a disaster, run aground;

You can also use this as a noun:

The show was a total flop.

This is usually in regards to ticket sales or popular opinion. Even if a show or artwork's critical acclaim is high, it can still be a flop.

The solution doesn't have to be Latin-based, it can be comprehensible, in English, and idiomatic sounding.

  • his/her least successful work to date
  • his lesser-known or little-known piece
  • his/her most memorable failure
  • his most obscure piece of work (of little or no fame, etc. or distinction)
  • the unsung work of art/literature

However, if one wants to retain the learned and lofty feel of magnum opus, you could travel down the Italian route: opera minore

protected by tchrist Aug 4 at 4:12

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