I understand that the word “precious” in the following quote of Maureen Dowd’s article “Heart of Darkness” (NYT, March 20) literally means “2. valuable or important and not to be wasted” as defined in OALD:

Congressman Jones read an e-mail from a former boss of General Allen’s, giving the congressman this unvarnished assessment: “Attempting to find a true military and political answer to the problems in Afghanistan would take decades. Would drain our nation of precious resources, with the most precious being our sons and daughters. Simply put, the United States cannot solve the Afghan problem, no matter how brave and determined our troops are.

But I didn’t know “precious” has another meaning as defined in OALD: 5. (disapproving, people and their behavior) very formal, exaggerated and not natural, and Readers English Dictionary: 2.(colloquial) terrible, almost worthless, until I was told by my respected forum mate a few days ago.

Being encouraged by his suggestion for me to “ask another question if I’m not sure of what he means by describing his input as “precious” is actually rather “precious” phrasing, I would like to ask:

  1. What is an example of “precious” being used as “disapproving” or sarcastic way (as neither OALD nor CALD provides examples)?

  2. Is there an easy way to discern the instance “precious” being used as “disapproving” from the case being used in the sense of genuine “great value” as used in the above quote other than judging from the context?

  • "In what context could ..." might be better, I suppose.
    – Kris
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 11:50
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    In most cases the context where it's used should make it clear whether the speaker is being (usually, somewhat gently) disparaging or not. Another good clue is when you see a bit precious, you can be pretty certain it doesn't mean "somewhat valuable". There are thousands of usages in that link - skim through a few, and you'll soon get a feel for how it's normally used in the ironic sense. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 13:42
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    Oh, this question is just precious! Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 13:44
  • @Joachim Sauer: Is that as in "pricelessly droll", or "excessively preoccupied with minor details"? In case you didn't know, Yoichi has been justifiably proud of being introduced in a corporate context as one of his company's "priceless assets", so he does have a genuine personal interest in this one! Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 16:34

7 Answers 7


Precious is used disapprovingly when someone is behaving in a way others perceive to be over-sensitive. In other words, they are behaving as if they are precious.

For example:

Dave: "I can't possibly get in your car, it smells faintly of dog"
Susan: "Oh stop being so precious and get in"

Another example of using precious disapprovingly is in the phrase precious language (as explained by TimLymington and FumbleFingers in the comments). This is attributed to language that is used in a way that is overtly laboured over, which would imply that the speaker/writer thinks a lot of themselves, and is trying to show off in some way. For example:

The warp and weft of our frail and meagre existence is inauspiciously blanketed with disheartening, disquieting, disingenuous and discourteous vociferations that we must yield our material being to the dogmatic and obtusely inconsequential media

An example of using precious sarcastically is when a child is behaving precociously:

Child doing something precocious

Parent: "Oh isn't Tristan precious!" (not sarcastic, genuine praise for their child)

Onlooker who finds the scene sickening: "Oh yeah. Really precious." (said in a sarcastic tone, probably out of earshot of the parent)

It would be difficult to discern a sarcastic use of precious without hearing the tone of voice, or knowing the person saying it.

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    +1. But I'm not sure you properly bring out the distinction between precious language (high-flown, rhetorical and obscure), and ordinary sarcasm , which simply reverses the meaning of any word. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 10:38
  • @TimLymington I see your point. I will have another go later, when I can think of a good example. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 10:52
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    @TimLymington actually, I must admit, I don't know what you mean by precious language. Do you mean using high-flown, rhetorical and obscure language to poke fun at those who use such language in earnest? Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 13:39
  • Matt: It's more a term applied by normal people (like us)to over-refined language: 1894 Athenæum 25 Aug. 252/3 "The employment of ‘curious’ in a somewhat precious sense at least three times." Or when Huckleberry Finn (somewhere) refers to school compositions "in which the word beauteous was over-fondled as often as expected". Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 14:35
  • @TimLymington: You might be over-particularising exactly what "precious language" means. Fundamentally, I think it just means easily identifiable as having been over-carefully crafted. Sometimes that may mean no more than that it contains "inappropriate" levels of euphemism, for example, or or goes out of its way to avoid a split infinitive or similar. It certainly doesn't normally mean "high-flown", in my experience. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 17:58

When someone does their best Smeagol impression, and says, “My preciousssss,” that’s often using the word in a negative way.

But Schroedingers Cat gave a better example — where a woman is overly concerned about her precious chairmanship, and probably relishes that position more than she should.

As for your second question (is there an easy way to discern between the two), there are three main ways you can do that: context, context, and context. If the object being modified is something not all that precious after all, there's a good chance the word is being used in the negative sense.

Precious jewels, precious resources, precious children – all those have value. But her precious sandwich committee chairmanship? That sounds more like a backhanded compliment, perhaps addressing her aggrandized sense of self-importance.

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    +1 for the three ways of working out whether a usage is ironic or not (not so sure about the last one, but the first two are good! :) Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 13:47

"She is very precious about her chairmanship of the sandwich committee". It is normally when a person is described as being precious about something that it would be considered a negative statement

  • So would it be fair to say that when precious describes a behavior it's generally negative but when it describes an object it's generally positive?
    – MatsT
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 15:07
  • Yes in general. I was cautious about putting it like this as there may be exceptions, but substantially, yes. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 16:24
  • @Mats. I thought it's a good guideline for using the word for me. Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 20:57

There's the literal meaning of great value, and the colloquial use as an intensifier meaning very (as in "There are precious few instances of 'a bit precious' where the word is being used literally").

Other than that, there are various "flavours" of ironic usage. I note that for these, OED only really gives (ironically) Of little worth, worthless, good-for-nothing, which to be honest I've rarely heard. The common ironic uses I hear disparage over-valuation of something the speaker considers trivial.

  • Precious language is overly-careful to use exactly the right words; the speaker thinks just using common phrasing would be more natural.

  • "She's a bit precious about her new baby" means the speaker thinks she makes too much fuss over the baby (and perhaps thinks others care more about the baby than they actually do).

  • "I'm not having that after it fell on the floor!" - "Don't be so precious -just eat it!" implies the speaker thinks the reluctant diner overvalues minor food hygiene issues.

The other usage I hear is similar to ironic priceless, meaning drolly funny, often at the expense of someone else's naïveté - as @RichieACC's example from Shrek, where Farquaad implies that Shrek is naïve to imagine his love for Fiona could ever be taken seriously, or have a happy outcome.

Per my earlier comment, a good way to find ironic "reversal of meaning" usages for words like this is to search Google books for "a bit [word]" - which in this case produces thousands of examples, almost every one of which will be ironic.


In Shrek, the first one, right near the end. Lord Farquaad and Fiona are getting married and Shrek storms in to stop the ceremony. Farquaad realises that Shrek is in love with Fiona, and says; "The ogre's in love with the princess! How precious!"

As others have pointed out, it is the tone of voice that gives away the sarcastic intent behind the use of the word.

  • +1: I don't think this is the most common "sarcastic" usage (where it usually means fastidious, overweening), but it corresponds to my own occasional usage, where it effectively means priceless (drolly amusing, often said somewhat disparagingly of someone else's naïveté). Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 13:33

"What he has achieved from moving heaven and earth is precious little."

There is no way one could infer anything valuable in this context. Precious little is a cliched phrase widely used and understood for its sarcasm.

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    +1 for using precious in the sense of the second def from RED as given above. But this answer doesn't explain that usage at all.
    – sq33G
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 12:15
  • What @sq33G said (except I'm not actually upvoting, because of the "but"). Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 13:34

I think the sarcastic usage is frequently proceeded by "you and your". The implication is that the subject of the statement places too much value in the object. "We'd have more fun together if you didn't spend so much time with you and your precious car".

  • This usage is similar to "Isn't that special?" google.com/…
    – David W
    Commented Mar 22, 2012 at 20:33

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