Q: After reading your article about “hard” and “hardly,” my thoughts wandered to “hard of hearing.” Where did this originate? Would the opposite be “soft of hearing”? Why don’t we talk about “hard of seeing,” “hard of tasting,” etc.? I woke up at 3 a.m. thinking about this. Am I hard of sleeping?
A: The phrase “hard of” has been used in this way since the early 14th century. And yes, it’s been used for other things that some people find hard to do—like seeing, believing, and understanding. Here’s the story.
Since Old English, “hard” has been both an adjective (firm, solid, unyielding, difficult to do) and a noun (for a difficult experience or difficult times), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The noun “hard,” in the sense of a hardship or difficult times, was often linked with “nesh” (something soft). So the expression “in nesh and hard” meant in all circumstances—that is, in easy times and hard.
The OED’s first citation for the noun is from a riddle in a 10th-century poem: “Him on hand gæð heardes and hnesces” (“Into its hand goes hard and soft”). From Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn in The Red Book of Darley, MS 422, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
(In the riddle, Saturn asks “what is the wonder” that feeds on “all that dwell on the ground, fly in the air, swim in the sea”? Solomon answers, “Old age is powerful over all things on earth.” It “destroys the tree,” “defeats the wolf,” “outwits the rocks,” “bites iron with rust,” and “does the same to us.”)
In the early 14th century, writers began using the noun in various phrases with the sense of a difficulty, hardship, misfortune, and so on, the OED says.
The dictionary’s first citation is from Guy of Warwick, a Middle English romance dating from around 1330 or earlier: “Y com fram Lombardy, Of hard y-schaped for þe maistrie” (“I come from Lombardy, from hardship of the highest degree”).
Of course, the noun today is used much less than the adjective, which is where your question comes in.
In its earliest uses, the adjective meant firm and unyielding, as in heard ssweord (hard sword), a phrase recorded in Beowulf, possibly written as early as the 700s.
Here’s a similar use, from a collection of Old English medical remedies copied into a 10th-century manuscript known as Bald’s Leechbook:
“Wiþ heardum swile þæs magan” (“For a hard swelling of the stomach”). The title of the manuscript comes from its Latin colophon, or publication details: “Bald habet hunc librum Cild quem conscribere iussit” (“Bald owns this book, which he ordered Cild to compile”).
At the same time, the adjective was being used to mean difficult or hard to accomplish, as in this OED citation: “Þa þuhte me swiðe heard & uneaðe” (“That seems to me very hard & not easy”). From Bishop Wærferth’s translation, done in the late 800s or early 900s, of Gregory’s Dialogues, which were written in Latin the sixth century.
And in Middle English, the combination “hard + of” took on the sense you’re asking about. Oxford says the adjective was coupled with “of” (also sometimes “to” or “in”) to describe a person “not easily able to do something or capable of doing something”—a usage that survives today (excepting humorous examples) only in the phrase “hard of hearing.”
The dictionary’s earliest known example for “hard of” is in the anonymous Middle English poem Cursor Mundi, written sometime before 1325: “Men sua herd of vnder-stand” (“Men are hard of understanding”).
The phrase “hard of hearing” appeared in writing more than two centuries later: “The testatrixe was hard of hearinge.” From a deposition in a 1564-65 case about a will, cited in Child-Marriages, Divorces, and Ratifications, etc. in the Diocese of Chester, 1897, edited by Frederick James Furnivall for the Early English Text Society.
Finally, here are a few unusual “hard of” usages from the OED:
“To those that are dull and hard of vnderstanding, or long time besieged with euill customes, the rust of their mindes must be rubbed off” (from The Workes of Lucius Annæus Seneca, 1614, translated from the Latin by Robert Lodge).
“They are hard of digestion, causing nauseating eructations” (Dictionnaire Oeconomique; or, The Family Dictionary, 1725, by Richard Bradley). The subject is radishes.
“In Portugal men are melancholy, sanguine, and robust, but slow and hard of intellect” (Werner’s Magazine, January 1896).
“Riots, too, are a form of language in which the voiceless get the attention of those who are ‘hard of listening’ ” (The Drama of Social Life, 1990, by T. R. Young).
May you be soft of sleeping the next time 3 a.m. comes along.
[Update, Oct. 24, 2020. A reader sent this excerpt from “The Smelly Car” episode of Seinfeld, first aired April 15, 1993: “Jerry: ‘Boy, do you smell something?’ Elaine: ‘Do I smell something? What am I, hard of smelling?’ ”]