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What Does It Mean to Be in Bad Shape?

By Keith Koons
Updated May 23, 2024
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When a person is considered to be in bad shape, the phrase generally means that he either is in poor health or not physically fit. Some residents in North America and Europe use this idiom to describe a person who is in the hospital under a serious ailment, possibly even close to death. In lighter circumstances, a doctor may also say that his patient is in bad shape when a test result reveals something negative that could lead to poor health. The term bad shape can also be used literally, meaning that a person needs to start eating better and exercising to lose unwanted weight. Other situations the phrase bad shape could be used would be to describe a pregnant female, a person with financial difficulties, or someone who is intoxicated.

Most of the time, when someone mentions the term "bad shape" in North America, he or she is referring to someone who is in poor physical condition. Likewise, a doctor may use the term "good shape" to describe someone who has passed a physical or received excellent test results, but it could just as easily be applied to dozens of other positive scenarios. The term is used so generically that a passerby who heard someone use the phrase would have no idea what was being referred to, even if he knew the people speaking.

Although the literal definition would seem to point to someone who is in bad physical or mental shape, it can also be used to describe a number of other scenarios as well. If someone's car stalled on the freeway, for example, and he had to walk to a repair station only to learn that his wallet was still in the vehicle, the service attendant may use the phrase to describe the situation. Another use of the phrase is when someone has consumed so much alcohol that he can barely stand; his friends may laugh and use the expression.

The phrase "bad shape" is one of many English sayings that are classified as idiomatic expressions. Usually, the meaning of idioms is a phrase that would make no sense to anyone outside a group or culture that uses the word because the literal definition would mean something else entirely. For example, another American idiom is a "high five," which means to slap hands above each person's heads in greeting or celebration. Other cultures might not understand the term.

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Discussion Comments
By Ana1234 — On Oct 31, 2014

@Iluviaporos - There are a lot of idioms that become so common that people stop even thinking about them like that. Language is a very strange thing. But in this case it's a fairly obvious term.

I think even when it's used to apply to people who have gained or lost weight, it isn't meant literally though. People don't say it to be rude, in fact, it's usually something people will say when they are trying to avoid being explicitly rude about a person's condition. But if they were commenting on the physical shape of a person that would be quite rude.

By lluviaporos — On Oct 30, 2014

@Fa5t3r - I think I would say "in a bad shape" if it was about mental health and would just say bad shape for a variety of different things otherwise.

I've never really thought of this as an idiom before, but I guess it wouldn't really make sense if you analyzed it from a literal perspective. Unless you were talking about a person gaining or losing weight, in which case you could mean it literally I suppose.

By Fa5t3r — On Oct 30, 2014

It's interesting how a phrase like this can mean different things to different people. I'd assume if someone told me another person was "in bad shape" that they meant that person was mentally unwell or suffering from some kind of tragedy rather than a physical problem.

I guess it would probably depend on the context and tone of the conversation as well, but generally I don't think it would occur to me that they meant the person was unfit or something like that.

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