My late grandfather had several word-choice peeves for which he would gently interrupt a speaker, especially a grandchild, in order to correct. The one I remember most was his dislike for the use of "hard" as a synonym for "difficult," as in the statement:

This homework is really hard.

I read and hear "hard" used this way all the time and often wonder if there is something incorrect about it. Is there, or has there ever been, any basis for this quibble?

  • 1
    It could be your grampa is kinda of crazy like mine, who keeps asking me to fix his alarm clock every time I visit him.
    – cregox
    Commented May 2, 2011 at 22:06
  • I agree with granddad. The opposite of hard is soft and the opposite of difficult is easy. It seems that the people who created our history did not recognize these simple truths. They were either ignorant of the facts and/or too lazy to use three syllables. The same attitude prevails today and I suspect it always will. The changing of our language is natural and exciting but it is unfortunate that it alters because people do not care enough about it.
    – user55988
    Commented Nov 9, 2013 at 4:25

2 Answers 2


There is nothing incorrect about hard being used that way. It's just more colloquial than difficult, but other than that, they are synonyms, and have been for a long time. The Oxford English Dictionary has citations going back all the way to 1340:

  • a1340 HAMPOLE Psalter vi. 4 Ful hard it is to be turnyd enterly til þe bryghthed and þe pees of godis lyght.
  • c1440 Promp. Parv. 227/1 Harde yn knowynge, or warkynge, difficilis.
  • 1559 W. CUNINGHAM Cosmogr. Glasse 97 It is as harde, and laborus, to get the Longitude.
  • 1611 BIBLE Transl. Pref. 2 So hard a thing it is to please all.
  • ...

I actually don't have access to the OED — where I'm quoting this from is this excellent Language Log entry. Highly recommended reading.

To that, I think it is worth adding that difficult is only some 600-odd years old. It is a back formation from difficulty, which in turn was borrowed from Old French in the late 14th century. Hard, on the other hand, has been around for much longer and came straight from Old English. So it's actually the more venerable way of saying "difficult".

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    Read it. Thanks for the Language Log link. The comments following are fun too. Wish I could have shared it with my grandfather. Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 22:35

You have this in many languages. I can think of at least two of them.

  • In German "es ist schwer" means both "it's heavy" and "it's difficult".
  • In French "c'est dur" means both it's "hard" and "it's difficult".

I guess you could conclude the Germans used to carry the stones, and the French used to carve them.

And all were complaining anyway !

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    Hungarian nehéz also means both "heavy" and "difficult".
    – Marthaª
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 22:11
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    Spanish does not have this overlap. English speakers learning Spanish and using duro when they mean dificil are a source of much hilarity to their native speaking peers. Particularly when they're trying to speak of a person being "difficult".
    – chaos
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 22:12
  • And understandably so ;-). However that works very well in Italian "e molto duro" really means "very difficult". Also note that in idiomatic spanish of Latin America "duro" also has the meaning of "stingy"... Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 22:15
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    While interesting, I'm not sure this actually answers the OPs question at all.
    – Dusty
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 22:24
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    To be exact, in Italian duro (hard) is used to mean difficile (difficult) only in set phrases, like "è dura, ma ce la faremo" ("it's hard, but we will do it"); you don't say "questo compito è duro" ("this task is hard"), but you say "la vita è dura" ("life is hard"). Say duro in the wrong context, and you will cause somebody to laugh.
    – apaderno
    Commented Mar 10, 2011 at 22:53

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