A hard man is good to find

I thought that alleged Mae West quote might get your attention…

Back in May 2013, I wrote that I didn’t expect to come across hard man (BrE for “tough guy”) in the U.S. again. It did take almost two years, but in any event, on NPR this morning, host Scott Simon described the captain of the U-boat that sank the Lusitania as “the kind of guy that you might actually, you know, like to have schnapps with, but a very hard man.”

On Google News, all the recent uses of the phrase are British, but I found one interesting. This was an article from the Daily Mail about Tom Benson, the owner of the (American) football team the New Orleans Saints. The article anonymously quotes “a close family source” as saying, ‘Tom has always been a hard man.”

I wouldn’t trust anonymous sources generally, even less so in the Daily Mail. But when a presumably American anonymous source starts throwing around British expressions in that English rag, well, as we say in New York, fuhgeddaboutit.

12 thoughts on “A hard man is good to find

  1. It wasn’t until the anonymous quote about Tom Benson that I thought of a real American usage other than Mae West’s quip, and that being its use as applied to the men of the Alaskan gold rush (actually, the Klondike gold rush in Canada’s Yukon territory), and men in those north woods, in general.

    1. seems to me I’ve seen the expression “hard guy” in mystery and thriller novels as a variant on “tough guy.”

  2. To my US ears/eyes, the NPR quote uses “hard” to mean “tough-minded” or “aggressively rational”; not quite the same as being a “tough guy” which would imply something about physicality and attitude/presentation as well. The “hard” is purely an adjective, too, not part of a two-word noun, if you see what I mean. (This is why I should learn more about linguistic terms…!)

    If I saw “He’s a hard man” in most contexts I would think it was shorthand for “a man who is hard to get to know,” i.e. a distancing or unemotional person. In the Daily Mail example “hard” seems to mean “difficult to be around” and is definitely something a US-er might say in that context; the language there is very informal and it sounds a little like the interviewee was casting around for the right words. (On the other hand, as you point out, the Daily Mail’s reputation might obviate the whole question.)

  3. Is The Economist more to your taste?

    RIP Dave Mackay


    ‘There was no denying that Mackay, who died on March 2nd, aged 80, was a hard man; perhaps the hardest of his generation. Granite-jawed and oak-hearted: “The toughest player I ever played against,” said George Best. “And certainly the bravest.” Every team had a tough guy then; it was almost a designated position, like goalkeeper or outside-half. Yet he was not nasty, the way that others who aspired to his mantle were. Leeds United had “Bite-yer-legs” Hunter and Chelsea had “Chopper” Harris—men who loved to feed their spiteful reputations. Not Mackay. He was heroic. His tackle was uncompromising—an immovable object when confronted with a bruising centre forward, never afraid to throw his body into danger. But he believed in playing the game in the right way. The toughest player of them all was never once sent off.’

  4. Hard man, Hard luck, Hard cheese( or as my sister often corrupts “tough cheddar”) are expressions I have heard all my life in Britain.

  5. There is also Matthew 25:14-30 ( Parable of the Talents)

    “He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not winnow; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’

  6. I agree that Americans don’t use the expression “hard man” but I think they do use the expression “hard as nails”.

  7. The ‘very’ there makes it look rather un-British. I think of ‘hard man’ in BrE more like a compound, in which case it can’t take a ‘very’. (You can have a ‘very blue bird’, but not a ‘very bluebird’.) BrE doesn’t close (i.e. get rid of the space in) its compounds as much as AmE does (I have an old post on that: http://separatedbyacommonlanguage.blogspot.co.uk/2007/10/to-hyphenate-or-not-to-hyphenate.html), so don’t let that space in it fool you… Collins Dictionary, I see, has got(ten) rid of the space.

  8. I am born, bred and live in the UK. For your information there are two different ways in which the phrase ‘hard man’ is used here. Forgive me if I am stating the obvious to anyone reading.

    The first way is to describe someone who is a tough and possibly emotionally remote and difficult character. For example “My father was very tough on the people around him. He was a hard man and he didn’t do the touchy feely stuff.”. The speaker would stress the word ‘hard’.

    The second way describes someone who is physically tough and capable of violence and aggression, possibly professionally. This is the use which is equivalent to ‘tough guy’. For example “Come on then – take a swing at me if you think you’re a hard man!”. The speaker would apply equal stress to both words.

    In the original post I think both the U-Boat and NPR examples are the first type of usage.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s