English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

Please tell me what does "harsh mistress" mean in this sentence:

Nostalgia can be a harsh mistress.

share|improve this question
I'd be confused too as even understanding the phrase it makes little sense. – GdD Aug 10 '12 at 11:33
Was there any context around that sentence that might help you understand it? – Mitch Aug 10 '12 at 13:04

It deliberately has two meanings, using the ambiguity for poetic effect.

One meaning of mistress is as the feminine form of master, and hence it is saying nostalgia must be obeyed, (and is harsh).

Another meaning of mistress is as a woman one (traditionally based on heterosexist assumptions, a man) has a romantic and/or sexual affair with. Hence it is saying that nostalgia is "courted" as something beloved, but responds harshly (in many ways a more fraught position than having a harsh mistress in the other sense).

The second is probably the predominant meaning, but the first is deliberately still in there, which affects its poetic impact.

Just where the balance lies depends on the subject:

In the case of nostalgia, it's hard to see the first meaning as applying much as there's always a voluntary aspect to engaging in nostalgia.

In the case of the sea (a common subject of the idiom), the balance is greater - those who work on the sea typically chose that career out of a love for it, but must also continue to work it to make their living even if they are no longer as fond.

In the case of The Moon in the famous Heinlein novel, both meanings are definitely present, but given that the story is about a revolt against an undemocratic leadership, the author more deliberately wants the dichotomy of mistress/slave brought to mind.

share|improve this answer
Good points. I just wanted to add that I think the sea is a harsh mistress in part because it can be unpredictable and severe (during storms and such). In a similar way, a harsh mistress can make things very difficult on those who love her. – J.R. Aug 10 '12 at 12:09
@J.R. A harsh mistress as in a slave-owner or an employer of servants can also make things very difficult. I think the "harsh" bit is less ambiguous than the "mistress" bit. – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 12:12
I think the first sense of 'mistress' is primary. The second sense, which in modern use as often as not denotes a dependent beloved, evolved out of an original use in the courtly love tradition, where the beloved is depicted as a harsh mistress whose commands, however arbitrary, must be obeyed. – StoneyB Aug 10 '12 at 12:13
True; I was really only remarking on the sea (you mentioned lost fondness, but didn't say much about storms and shipwrecks). – J.R. Aug 10 '12 at 12:14
@StoneyB it makes less sense to talk of a "female master" one can easily disobey (just burn that old yearbook already!), nor does that match most actual uses of the idiom. The courtly love tradition also mixes both deliberately as the lover is voluntary in following her wishes and the context is an inherently one of ambiguous power (women having less power than men in such society, but the man doing things for her - chivarly is the noblesse oblige of sexism). Mistress meant a "kept woman" and a "female master" in English from about the same time ("teacher/governeress" is older). – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 12:26

According to Google Ngram, the 1830s is where we see the turn of phrase "harsh mistress" take root to describe the world, Russia, and actual females. Its usage there invokes the female equivalent of a "harsh master".

The phrase is used to describe someone (or something) with exacting standards that are hard, if not impossible, to satisfy.

Heavenly bodies like the earth and moon, as well as countries, are generally considered feminine in English (and explicitly so in languages like Spanish: la luna, la tierra), but this doesn't necessarily confer a woman's status (or historical lack thereof) to the object itself. For instance, "France deployed her troops" does not imply France's characteristics are "feminine" (as defined by patriarchal society?).

Without context, it's hard to discern the meaning(s) in the sentence. I lean toward "woman master" rather than "kept woman." Insofar as women are stereotyped as "love objects", the sentence could mean that nostalgia exerts some kind of lure that is ultimately unrewarding. However, it's not necessary to read in a woman's status, as the sentence means that nostalgia has some form of dominance despite nostalgia's lack of merit, regardless of "her" role.

Edit: removed non-existent Biblical reference, lazy citing on my part!

share|improve this answer
I don't think we can say 1430 is "modern times", and 1426 "earlier than modern times" - both incidentally before English translations of the Bible were common. (And originally in English it meant a schoolteacher or children's governess). The moon and the sea (more relevant, since the expression is used with it) are indeed represented as female, but you can't argue that in choosing to represent something as a woman, people are not choosing to deal with ideas about what it means to be a woman. "Master" would serve as well as it does in Romans and in other biblical uses of it as a metaphor. – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 14:25
@JonHanna When I first typed my answer, I put "at least back to its use in the Bible" but decided to leave it out. I would be curious if the idiom existed before the Bible (though I'm sure the construction existed). NGram hasn't helped, though looking for "harsh master" gave this insight from an 1818 book on synonyms: "A harsh master renders every burden which he imposes doubly sever, by the grating manner in which he communicates his will". I believe femininity isn't the emphasis, as someone saying "France sent her troops" has little to do with gender. I'll update my answer, though. – Zairja Aug 10 '12 at 15:00
@JonHanna (cont.) And I appreciate the critique! :) – Zairja Aug 10 '12 at 15:03
Well, there's no completely verifiable answer as to which of the two meanings is predominant - that's part of the point of using a phrase that offers more than one reading after all, so I'm not saying you're wrong. The influence of the KJV on English idioms is so strong, that I'm sure it did have an effect. I do feel though that anyone thinking "I'll change this from master to mistress because the object is traditionally written of as female" would be more fully concious of the way they were using gender, and hence of the other meanings. It's what makes for a well placed word after all. – Jon Hanna Aug 10 '12 at 15:08
@JonHanna You seem to be relying on OED for your 15th-century dates? I'm working off of the print 1st edition, and I can demonstrate that a) OED's earliest citation for the 'kept woman' sense is wrong and b) there's at least one 14th century (Chaucer) use in the 'beloved' sense which predates OED's earliest citation. I'm still trying to get access to the 3d edition, to see if these have been corrected. – StoneyB Aug 15 '12 at 1:38

Mistress - something you fall dearly in love with.
Harsh - the thing you love brings unanticipated heartache, hassles, headaches, and problems you wish you didn't have to deal with - a nightmare.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.