Etymonline.com gives a lot of definitions regarding an implement or instrument, specifically inanimate objects.

But the word has crept into English slang in reference to people, as in "he is a total tool." Would this mean that he is someone's "puppet?" Or if someone said, "He is a tool of IBM," would this mean that he was a (blindly loyal) company man? Could this refer to a kind of soldier (e.g. a Japanese during World War II) who would jump off a cliff if ordered to do so by an officer?


8 Answers 8


Yes, tool in this context means that IBM can use him whatever way they choose, that he is obedient. It's usually used, though, in a context where the relationship is slightly unexpected, unwitting, or inappropriate. The tool lacks self-awareness. A soldier would not be a good example, then, since soldiers are not expected to act independent of their superiors’ orders.

We might say "Speaker John Boehner has become a tool of the Tea Party," which is remarkable because of the inversion of the usual relationship between the Speaker of the House and a faction of his supporters. (If you prefer the politics reversed, you can find people who say "President Obama is a tool of the Muslim Brotherhood.")

Update: For total tool (as opposed to mere tool), it is an insult as John Q Public suggests.

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    I agree with you on the IBM example, but that definition doesn't fit with he's a total tool, at least not in the way it's typically used. Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 17:37
  • Quite right; total tool equals total schmuck. Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 17:41

Generally, referring to someone as just a "tool" (with no qualifiers) is referring to definition 9 as seen at http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/tool?s=t:

Slang: Vulgar Penis.

So it's about the same as calling them a jerk, a dickhead, and so forth.

Referring to them as "a tool of X", on the other hand, does have the implication that you refer to: they are a loyal instrument that can be counted on to do X's bidding and to act in X's interests at all times.

  • I hadn't thought of it that way, but it does make sense that the etymology stems from penis; it fits the perfectly using dick and one could figuratively say it's a tool. Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 17:59
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    This is incorrect. The penis definition is for a different use of the word tool. Specifically, it's when one says "his tool" meaning "his penis". But, saying "he is such a tool," (as the OP asked about) does not mean "he is a penis". Saying somebody is a tool means that they're stupid or foolish. The urban dictionary answer by @RyeBread is the correct answer here. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 4:43
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    I note that everyone on this thread so far is US based. To provide a British English perspective, Hellion's answer is perfectly correct. The OP's phrase "he is a total tool" in the UK would be taken as quite a serious insult.
    – user48580
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 12:08

You're asking about two separate definitions.

He's a total tool can mean a prick/jerk/ass/dork/nerd and some other offensive words that I'll leave to your imagination. The meaning would depend on the speaker and what the person does that makes him a tool. It's a pejorative generally reserved for males.

On the other hand, you're correct regarding He is a tool of IBM. It does mean that he's blindly loyal, but it can also mean that he's a prop or a puppet being used by IBM, suggesting he's either under control by or manipulated by IBM. In other words, it's a metaphor suggesting he is used by IBM much like one might use a wrench to tighten a bolt.


I am not saying that tool cannot be used for being a jerk or prick but we would commonly use it instead of dumbass or someone who is lacking intelligence.

Urban dictionary:
One who lacks the mental capacity to know he is being used. A fool. A cretin. Characterized by low intelligence and/or self-steem.
  • Who's the “we” you're referring to here? Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 23:30
  • @BraddSzonye - Sorry I am in the US. Tool is equal to dumbass in every instance I can think of. Doesn't really have anything to do with someone being a jerk. However almost any negative word can have other meanings. You can in fact call a jerk a dumbass and most people would understand fine with context. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 3:54
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    I am also from the US (Midwest and West Coast), and I would say that dumbass fails to capture most of the connotations of tool ("macho" for the dick sense and "dupe" for the other sense). Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 4:17
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    @BraddSzonye - maybe different generations. Don't know. I think the urban dictionary is usually pretty accurate for current slang use. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 4:30
  • +1 because this is the meaning I've always heard/read, like in this Cyanide & Happiness strip: explosm.net/comics/1791
    – Agos
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 9:26

I like watch Scrubs tvshow here is how the JD, who is one of the main characters, talking with nerd doctor and making up in his head that short conversation, might be helpful.

For some reason when I saw your question that episode popped up in my mind momentarily.

Here is even better cut up.

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    Please always quote or summarize the relevant information from links that you post. Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 4:22

There is a generalization of the definition that someone "is a tool (in whatever context)". Based on my experience, this defines someone that is acting with great ignorance as to their purpose (in a situation or generally), commonly on behalf of another party in a grander scheme. A correlation is to a tool itself, such as a screwdriver, which by itself has no specific purpose other than to compliment some greater goal, otherwise unaware of its role in the larger task. Thus a person referred to generally "as a tool" reflects their base impulses (such as an animal or inanimate object) and inability to understand higher level purposes. In a specific context such as being used "as a tool by (some party)", reflects the individual's lack of understanding of their role (much like a puppet) in a grander scheme.

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    @ Darrell Teague -- That is also my sense of the word (other answers above had similarly gotten to the same thing.) There is a term of political jargon that I think gets to the meaning of "tool" that the OP is asking about: "useful idiot," which wiki defines as "a pejorative term for people perceived as propagandists for a cause whose goals they are not fully aware of, and who are used cynically by the leaders of the cause." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Useful_idiot
    – Nicole
    Commented Oct 8, 2013 at 22:07
  • That later definition is excellent as the primary. The secondary likely refers a more colloquial term, usually referring to a man, as "just a tool" - who's sole purpose and function is a means to an end (to please a woman). I have heard both men refer to themselves in this manner (purposely so as to profess their manliness in this one regard) and women refer to men this way (with both positive and negative connotations). Commented Oct 10, 2013 at 8:40

I always thought it was rhyming slang for 'fool'.

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    This does not provide an answer to the question. To critique or request clarification from an author, leave a comment below their post.
    – Ste
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 19:54
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    I don't understand you. It seems to me to answer the question perfectly.
    – user52780
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 21:24
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    It does answer the question; unfortunately, tool is not a slang rhyme for fool. It either refers to a male sexual organ, or it is a derogatory remark upon a situation where the subject is in a position blind service to some individual or organization, not realizing that it is disadvantageous or harmful. E.g. being used as an instrument. An instrument doesn't think of the consequences or morals of its action, and performs its job without compensation until is worn out and discarded.
    – Kaz
    Commented Oct 2, 2013 at 22:16
  • I can only speak of the word's nuance as I have heard it being used in southern England over my lifetime. It is slightly dated. It was more common in the 1950s. But the idea of 'an instrument not thinking of its consequences', as you put it, is undoubtedly part of the story. But I still think the rhyming element is important. Using a rhyming word to avoid too much directness is perhaps more common here. 'Tool' referring to the male organ is a completely different use.
    – user52780
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 6:51
  • Apologies if you disagree with the comment. I just felt that your answer, being a "thought", was a commentary rather than an answer. No harm done though. :)
    – Ste
    Commented Oct 3, 2013 at 8:17

None of the answers here are getting the term "tool" right when it is applied to a man. When a guy is a "tool" he is far more than a jerk. People who cut you off in traffic are jerks. They're not tools. When girls at my university called a certain complex a "tool-shed," and the guys who lived there "complete tools," what they meant is much closer to "selfish bastards" than "jerk". They mean the kind of guys who run around thinking only about themselves, their image, their reputations, and who see women as ornaments and objects of self-adornment and personal pleasure. They see the world and the people around them in terms of what they can provide to them personally. They are manipulative, prey on naive (and often much younger) girls, use psychological games to win favor and attention and to feed a cycle of dependency that they hope will keep their girl(s) coming back. Worst of all, they are unabashed about what they do. And while this isn't necessarily true, they're often gym rats and get together with their bros and share con-man/pick-up artist techniques while they work out their arms, shoulders, and chests (leaving twig-like legs). When they work out alone, they spend half their time scoping out chicks. Girls who fall for tools fall into a venus flytrap, and if they get out, they never forget.

When a girl says "he was a complete tool," that's what she means.

  • While this may be yet-another variation on the term, if one starts at the root word "tool" definition and then, per this explanation as to where the tools are stored (shed) ... the leap to a self-centered person does to exactly follow (i.e., a hammer is not possessed with self-serving interests). Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 21:28

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