Q: I’m always hearing people say “a tough ROAD to hoe.” Hoeing a road is probably illegal, and using that expression should be illegal too. What are your thoughts?
A: We don’t know if hoeing a road is illegal, but an asphalt road must be a mighty tough road to hoe. The correct expression is, of course, “a tough row to hoe,” and it refers to hoeing rows on a farm. To have a “tough” or “hard” or “long” or “difficult” row to hoe means to have a daunting task to perform.
The Oxford English Dictionary says the correct expression is of American origin and dates back to the early 19th century. The first OED citation is from the March 24, 1810, issue of the New-York Spectator:
“True, we have a hard row to hoe—’tis plaguy unlucky the feds have taken him up.”
And here’s an example from An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East, an 1835 book by the frontiersman Davy Crockett: “I know it was a hard row to hoe.”
Interestingly, the “road” version of the expression showed up soon after Crockett’s book. The earliest example we’ve seen is from the Dec. 3, 1842, issue of the Daily Atlas (Boston).
A farmer, describing his long journey to take wheat to market, writes: “ ‘Truly you have a hard road to hoe,’ you will say; ‘why don’t you sell your wheat nearer home?’ ”
We sympathize with you, but we think substituting “road” for “row” in the expression is a misdemeanor and doesn’t deserve hard time. Definitely no more than an hour on a road crew!
A few years ago, the linguists Geoffrey Pullum and Mark Liberman came up with the term “eggcorn” to describe such a substitution. (The term comes from the substitution of “egg corn” for “acorn.”)
[Note: This post was updated on Dec. 19, 2017.]