Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Language peeves are sometimes a bit hard to understand - the strange case of hard and difficult

I recently came across this, from a commenter at the linguistics blog Arrant Pedantry:
Schoolwork (homework) is not “hard”; it is “difficult”.

Comment at Arrant Pedantry

Googling around, I found a questioner at Stack Exchange saying that this had been a pet peeve of his grandfather, which led me to a discussion at Language Log, where a correspondent KF had written:
Spelling is difficult; walls are hard.
Many people fail to use the word hard correctly….
But why should anyone think using hard to mean difficult to be incorrect?

A total absence of any mention in usage guides

Neither Fowler nor the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage have entries for hard as an adjective, only the comparison with hardly as an adverb, suggesting that this particular controversy is rather limited. On the contrary, in the third edition of Fowler, Robert Burchfield has a section on 'hard words', and in Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner writes, quoting William Zinsser:
Authorities on the written word echo each other in stressing how difficult good writing is: "Writing is hard work ... If you find that writing is hard, it's because it is hard."

Garner's Modern American Usage, Bryan Garner (Google Books)

This would suggest that this is some sort of 'folk' peeve rather than a mainstream one. I'm nowhere closer to discovering where this idea has come from, but I've collected some examples of the historical use of hard meaning difficult, just to show that no one should have any doubts as to the legitimacy of this usage.

The earliest dictionaries - 'hard word' dictionaries

What is widely regarded as the first English Dictionary, Robert Cawdrey's 'A Table Alphabeticall' of 1604, talks of 'hard usual words'
Table Alphabeticall, con-
tayning and teaching the true
writing and understanding of hard
usuall English words, borrowed from
the Hebrew, Greeke, Latine
or French &c.

(British Library) (Frontispiece)

This tradition of 'hard word' dictionaries was carried on by John Bullokar, Thomas Blount and Elisha Coles, amongst others (although, admittedly, Bullokar calls them 'the most difficult words' (Google Books).
We can compare this with John Rastell's An Exposition of Certaine Difficult and Obscure Wordes of 1579 (the only reference to difficult at Google Books before 1600). But hard words stuck and in 1656 Thomas Blount published his
or a
interpreting all such
Hard Words
of Whatever Language, now used
in our refined English Tonguee

(British Library) - (Frontispiece)

In 1676, Elish Coles published his dictionary:
English Dictionary
explaining the difficult terms that are used in ...
Many Thousands of Hard Words ...

(Google Images)

And in 1707 Blount published:
Glossographia Anglicana Nova
or a
Such Hard Words of whatever
language as are at present used in the
English Tongue, with their Etymologies,
Definitions &c.

(Google Books)

So it seems that in the earliest English dictionaries, at least, hard and difficultt were pretty well synonymous.

Hard = difficult - a literary / historical perspective

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this meaning goes back to 1200, and the Oxford English Dictionary has examples going back to 1340 (see Language Log link below). The adjective difficult in fact seems rather younger. This is from Etymology Online:
difficult (adj.)
c.1400, apparently a back-formation from difficulty. French has difficile, Latin difficilis. Of persons, "hard to please," from 1580s.

(Online Etymology Dictionary)

The earliest I can find at Google Books is from a book by Erasmus, published in 1533, which has four instances of hard meaning difficult, and two of hard meaning cruel:

A Playne and Godly Exposytion Or Declaration of the Commune Crede
Erasmus, London 1533

Moving into the seventeenth century, theres's this from Shakespeare:
And thou shalt see how apt it is to learne
Any hard Lesson that may do thee good

Much Ado about Nothing

And from the King James Bible (1611) we have:
Is anything too hard for the Lord

Genesis, xviii:14

From Milton in Paradise Lost, first published in 1667
As for the hard words, I was obliged to use

John Arbuthnot 1667-1735, quoted by Samuel Johnson

In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson gives seventeen different meanings of hard, at least two of them concerned with difficulty, quoting Sidney, Dryden as well as Milton and Arbuthnot
2. Difficult; not easy on the intellect
3. Difficult of accomplishment; full of difficulties

A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson, 1755

(Johnson Dictionary Online - Page View, Page 966)

A Digital Edition of the 1755 Classic by Samuel Johnson.
Edited by Brandi Besalke

And of course Dickens wrote ‘Hard Times’, published in 1854, the title of which no doubt plays on the several meanings of the word.

Too hard

And if this seeme too hard for us to doe
It is too hard a wal for us

Sermons of Master John Calvin, Upon the Booke of Job, Jean Calvin Impensis Thomae Woodcocke, 1584 (Google Books)

O these are barraine taskes, too hard to keepe

Loves labors lost: the first quarto, William Shakespeare, 1598 (Google Books)

and to aid and assist us against all those Difficulties which would be otherwise too hard for us, if we were left to our selves.

The Christian Life, from Its Beginning, to Its Its Consummation in Glory, John Scott 1683 (Google Books)

Idioms and collocations

And what about idiomatic expressions like ‘hard to say’ and other common collocations?

Hard to say

how many there were 'tis hard to say

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 1673 (Google Books)

that it is hard to say which they rather deserve, our pity or contempt

The Spectator, No 282, January 1712 (Google Books)

Hard lesson

We've already seen one from Shakespeare. Here's another, from 1704
But as absurd as this is, universal Experience teaches us, that Humility, true Humility is a hard Lesson

Religious Perfection, Or, A Third Part of the Enquiry, Richard Lucas - 1704 (Google Books)

Hard question

but the hard question was, whether he would doe it

Fast sermons to Parliament 1648 (Google Books)

For an explanation of these fast sermons see (The History of Parliament)

although he was very learned, yet knowing that God leads us not to heaven by hard questions

The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton, London 1653 (Google Books)

Hard test

The sure and hard test of good troops is the bayonet : how then can it be expected that new levies of citizens should stand this test, at the very first time of their seeing an enemy ?

The Antijacobin Review and True Churchman's Magazine, 1818 (Google Books)

Hard exam

The Army has a hard "exam."—
    The pay is small when "through";
For Civil Service what a "cram"
    And competition too!

Rhymes of the Times, C. J. H. Cassels - 1891 (Google Books)

A hard act to follow

This seems relatively recent, with only one dated before 2000 at Google Books, and (this article) from the New York Times, from 1997. has it as being from 1975+

Final word

If anything,it looks as though hard was used to signify difficult before difficult was. And English is by no means the only language where one word means both the opposite of soft, and the opposite of easy; there's dur in French, for example:
  • Le granit est une roche dure.
    Granite is a hard rock.
  • Le sommet est dur à atteindre.
    The summit is hard to reach.


It is one of the joys of English that we often have a choice of words to use for the same meaning, and that the same or similar words can have different meanings. How otherwise would we have a humour based so much on word play, illustated in this interchange from Not the Nine O'Clock News, in a sketch about Gerald the Gorilla:
  • Prof: I'm sorry, can I put this into some sort of perspective, when I caught Gerald in '68 he was completely wild
  • Gerald: Wild, I was absolutely livid ..


It seems some would prefer not to have that choice. Strange!

Final final word

And if hard didn't also have the meaning of difficult, we wouldn't be able to have double entendres like this, from Simon Nye's production for ITV of the panto 'Jack and the Beanstalk'; Jill is in Jack's arms and they are singing a song together:
  • Jill (romantically):     Oh Jack, I can feel something between us.
  • Jack: I'm sorry.
  • Jill (innocently):     It's getting harder to resist.
  • Jack (not so innocently): ... it's getting harder.
  • Jill:     I can't believe how big our love has grown.
  • Jack (well,you get the idea): ... how big it's grown.
You can see the video clip at YouTube. For more on the peculiarly British form of slightly risqué (OK, downright rude) family entertainment that is panto(mine), see my post It's behind you.



  1. I've noticed that a lot of peeves are basically just a dislike of metaphor. The objection to using over to mean more than rests on the idea that over can only have the literal meaning of above. I've heard a similar peeve saying that you can't raise or lower prices because those words mean that you're physically moving them up and down. Thus you can only increase or decrease prices.

    It's a rather strange fetish, and like most peeves, it's applied very inconsistently.

  2. Funnily enough I was thinking about the 'over/more than' thing after I wrote this. I think it's mainly an American idea, and Burchfield in Fowler's 3rd suggests it is entirely uncontroversial in BrE.

    I've never heard the one about raising and lowering prices, etc. I teach business English, so this is pretty well an everyday term for us.

  3. I've only heard the raise/lower thing one time. I think it was just some guy's invented pet peeve.

  4. Just on what you were saying about metaphor in your first comment, I found this at Prof Bryan's Common Errors (talking about "over /more than" - 'This absurd distinction ignores the role metaphor plays in language.'.

    I've certainly noticed that some people do take some words and expressions very literally, or want to force 'logical' interpretations on them. I've had lively discussions elsewhere about 'have got', for example, which being British, I use a lot in spoken language. Now as far as I'm concerned, (as well as all the EFL grammar books and course books I use are concerned), this is simply an informal idiom meaning 'have'. But there are some on forums determined to equate it with obtaining (often recently) - although quite where I'm supposed to have 'obtained' my sisters, brown eyes, sense of humour, etc, I'm not sure.