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I understand louse being singular for lice; however, I'm uncertain as to why louse around means to idle and louse up means to ruin. Any ideas?

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    Google shows just 23 instances of "just louse around", but it claims 4,600,000 instances of "just lounge around". So I think it's General Reference that 23 people got it wrong. – FumbleFingers Jun 8 '14 at 23:21
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    @FumbleFingers certainly I have never heard of this expression but to say it is a misinterpretation or egghorn of lounge around didn't sound right either. Google books has 124 results for louse around – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '14 at 5:47
  • @Mari-Lou: I actually went through that list, which turns out to have 18 instances where the context clearly shows louse around being used as a "phrasal verb". At least half-a-dozen seemed to be "dictionary definitions", so the "use/mention" ratio is certainly quite unusual. It still seems quite credible to me that it only "exists" in the first place because of mis-repetition of lounge/loaf/loll/laze around. – FumbleFingers Jun 9 '14 at 12:00
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A louse is a common derogatory term to describe a person who acts like a parasite, a pest, or someone extremely unpleasant.
Merriam-Webster offers this example: Her ex-husband is a real louse.

D.C states: Slang meaning "obnoxious person" is from 1630s; to louse up "ruin, botch" first attested 1934.

The earliest instance of the phrase louse around I found in Google books was American Dialect Society, 1927

v. phr. To loiter about aimlessly. Also, Laze around.

Which suggests that the term was not as derogatory as it is today. The better-known idiom, to lounge around, is but another way of saying to laze around. The following excerpt confirms this meaning.

From 1931 Shoe the Wild Mare by Gene Fowler enter image description here

Nowadays however, the idiom expresses contempt and suggests a parasitic approach to life. Wikitionary says

  1. (UK) To slack off; be lazy; be a "parasite" to someone/something.
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The verb louse has two completely opposite meanings, to remove lice or to fill with lice (this apparent contradiction is not that rare, there are other verbs formed from nouns and meaning both adding or removing whatever the noun is).

Filling with lice generally makes something bad. Hence figuratively, any act that spoils or ruins is lousing or lousing-up.

"Louse around" sounds like an eggcorn for "lounge around", though since it isn't considered particularly productive, it could be as much a portmanteau of "lounge around" with louse in the sense just considered.

  • I checked online and lo and behold it is an idiomatic expression en.wiktionary.org/wiki/louse_around – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '14 at 5:37
  • Google also proposes lice around the house before I finish typing, which suggests that the expression "louse around" is probably derived from that. – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '14 at 5:41
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Louse around. To treat badly, as to cheat, persecute, or betray. "That creep Lousy caper loused me around for my broad (girl) and my case dough (the last of my money) while I was waiting to go to bat (stand trial)." -Dictionary of American underworld lingo.

  • Yep, it's an idiom all right. – Mari-Lou A Jun 9 '14 at 5:38
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1) I've never heard "louse around". I think you mean "lounge around."

2) To "louse up" might mean to fill with lice; that would ruin most things. Or it may be a back formation from "lousy", now meaning generically bad but (I think) derived from that root.

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