Understanding the Idiom: "sixth-rate" - Meaning, Origins, and Usage

Idiom language: English

The idiom “sixth-rate” is a commonly used expression in English language that refers to something or someone of very poor quality. This phrase can be used to describe anything from an object, a place, or even a person’s abilities. It is often used in informal conversations and can be considered as slang.

When we say something is sixth-rate, it means that it is not good enough and does not meet our expectations. The term originated from the naval rankings system where ships were ranked based on their size, firepower, and crew strength. A first-rate ship was considered the best while a sixth-rate was at the bottom of the list.

In modern times, this idiom has been adapted to describe anything that is substandard or inferior. It can be used in different contexts such as describing a movie, restaurant, product or service. Understanding this phrase will help you communicate more effectively with native speakers and avoid misunderstandings.

Origins and Historical Context of the Idiom “sixth-rate”

The idiom “sixth-rate” is a phrase that has been used for centuries to describe something that is of poor quality or low value. Its origins can be traced back to the British Royal Navy, where ships were classified based on their size and strength. The term “rate” was used to indicate the number of guns a ship carried, with first-rate ships carrying more than 100 guns and sixth-rate ships carrying fewer than 20.

In this context, a sixth-rate ship was considered to be one of the smallest and weakest vessels in the fleet. These ships were often used for tasks such as patrolling coastal waters or escorting merchant vessels, rather than engaging in major battles. As such, they were seen as being less important and less prestigious than larger warships.

Over time, the term “sixth-rate” came to be used more broadly to describe anything that was considered to be inferior or substandard. This could include everything from goods and services to people and ideas. Today, the idiom is still commonly used in English-speaking countries around the world as a way of expressing disdain or disapproval towards something that is perceived as being of low quality or value.

Usage and Variations of the Idiom “sixth-rate”

When it comes to idioms, there are often variations in usage that can make them difficult to understand. The idiom “sixth-rate” is no exception, as it has several different meanings depending on the context in which it is used.

One common usage of “sixth-rate” is to describe something that is of low quality or inferior compared to others. For example, if someone were to say “that movie was sixth-rate,” they would be indicating that the film was poorly made and not worth watching.

Another variation of this idiom involves using it as a way to describe someone who is unimportant or insignificant. In this case, if someone were referred to as a “sixth-rate politician,” it would mean that they have little power or influence within their field.

Finally, some people use “sixth-rate” as a way of describing something that is average or mediocre. This could apply to anything from food at a restaurant (“the meal was sixth-rate”) to an athlete’s performance (“he had a sixth-rate game”).

Synonyms, Antonyms, and Cultural Insights for the Idiom “sixth-rate”


Some synonyms for “sixth-rate” include: inferior, low-quality, subpar, mediocre, second-rate. These words all convey a similar meaning to “sixth-rate”, which is something that is of poor quality or not up to standard.


On the other hand, antonyms for “sixth-rate” would include: superior, excellent, top-notch, outstanding. These words are used to describe things that are of exceptional quality or surpass expectations.

Cultural Insights:

The idiom “sixth-rate” originated from the naval ranking system where ships were ranked from first rate (the best) to sixth rate (the worst). This term has since been adopted into everyday language and is commonly used in English-speaking countries such as the United States and Great Britain. It is often used when describing a product or service that does not meet expectations or falls short of what was promised. Understanding this cultural background can help non-native speakers better understand how and when to use this idiom appropriately.

Word Type Example Sentence
Synonym The movie received mostly mediocre reviews.
Antonym This restaurant serves top-notch cuisine.
Cultural Insight The ship was ranked as sixth rate due to its poor condition.

Practical Exercises for the Idiom “sixth-rate”

Exercise 1: Identifying Sixth-Rate Situations

In this exercise, you will practice identifying situations that can be described as “sixth-rate”. Think about experiences or events that were poorly executed, low-quality, or unsatisfactory. Write down a list of these situations and share them with a partner. Discuss why you think they are sixth-rate and how they could have been improved.

Exercise 2: Using “Sixth-Rate” in Context

In this exercise, you will practice using the idiom “sixth-rate” in context. Choose a topic or situation and write a short paragraph describing it using the idiom. For example:

Topic: A restaurant with bad food and service

“I went to this restaurant last night and it was sixth-rate. The food was cold and tasted like it had been sitting out all day, and the server was rude and unhelpful.”

Share your paragraphs with a partner and discuss how effectively you used the idiom.

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Using the Idiom “sixth-rate”

When using idioms, it is important to understand their meanings and usage in context. The idiom “sixth-rate” is no exception. However, there are common mistakes that people make when using this idiom that can lead to confusion or misunderstanding.

One mistake is using the term “sixth-rate” as a synonym for “bad” or “low-quality”. While this may be a general implication of the idiom, its true meaning refers specifically to something that is of low rank or status within a particular system or hierarchy.

Another mistake is misusing the term by applying it too broadly. The idiom typically applies to systems with clear levels of ranking, such as military organizations or academic institutions. It may not be appropriate to use it in other contexts where such hierarchies do not exist.

A third mistake is failing to provide sufficient context when using the idiom. Without proper context, listeners or readers may misunderstand what exactly you are referring to as being sixth-rate.

To avoid these common mistakes, it’s important to have a clear understanding of what the idiom means and how it should be used in different contexts. By doing so, you can ensure effective communication and avoid any confusion or misunderstandings.

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