Upon a quick google search 'hard-boiled' means tough and cynical even though it doesn't say that this is a disapproving term. One of the synonyms of this word is 'hardened' which means 'very experienced in a particular job or activity and therefore not easily upset by its more unpleasant aspects' which seems like an admirable quality to have for likes of a soldier, militant or an inspector. But such a person would be labelled callous or uncaring about other people's feelings which is confusing me as this is unlikable quality to possess. Or is it that two different words can mean the same but still have different connotation?

Two examples:

That blood-shed would make even the most hard-boiled soldiers cry (Positive connotation)

The American Heritage Thesaurus defines hard-boiled, completely lacking in compassion (Negative connotation).

  • @Rathony I have tried adding some examples. Is this better now? Jan 1, 2016 at 6:32
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    Yes, it looks better. :-)
    – user140086
    Jan 1, 2016 at 6:47
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    The protagonist of a detective novel might be described as "hard-boiled". This would convey something about his personality, but would not imply that he is mean or evil.
    – Hot Licks
    Jan 1, 2016 at 14:27

5 Answers 5


Depends on how you like your eggs.

Different situations call for different attitudes. Hard-boiled would be hard for a young girl to take as a compliment. Unless she's your divorce attorney.

So yes, just like your examples, it has positive and negative connotations. It just depends on how you feel.


an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

"the word “discipline” has unhappy connotations of punishment and repression"

synonyms: overtone, undertone, undercurrent, implication, hidden meaning, nuance, hint, echo, vibrations, association, intimation, suggestion, suspicion, insinuation

"there was a connotation of distrust in his voice"



As a parent, would you prefer a paediatrician who is “hard-boiled” or “caring”? A hard-boiled paediatrician implies that the doctor is unemotional, but extremely practical. A doctor who is unaffected by the sight of children suffering, and just performs their job in a no-nonsense way. This lack of sentimentality could be a positive trait in the medical profession, but more likely, as patients and family members of sick children, we would perceive this doctor in a negative light.

As a general, would you prefer a soldier who is “hard-boiled” or “caring”?

A hard-boiled soldier, on the other hand, implies that the person has been toughened by the experience of killing and fighting on field. To me, that soldier sounds as if he or she performs their duty in a slick, cold, and highly-efficient manner. This lack of sentimentality could be perceived as a positive, or even an essential trait of a good soldier.

The following Ngram shows that speakers associate hard-boiled with cynical, realistic, tough, cold, and lastly, practical. None of these adjectives suggest a warm caring person. enter image description here

The next Ngram displays some of the most common words (excluding egg and eggs) linked with hard-boiled. Google seems to favour hard-boiled detective fiction and describes the literary genre as

a tough, unsentimental style of American crime writing that brought a new tone of earthy realism or naturalism to the field of detective fiction. Hard-boiled fiction used graphic sex and violence, vivid but often sordid urban backgrounds, and fast-paced, slangy dialogue

TV tropes has a page dedicated to Hardboiled Detective

A tough, cynical guy with a gun and a lot of Street Smarts, who solves mysteries with dogged persistence rather than astounding insight,

enter image description here

There were no results for “hard-boiled paediatrician” or “hard-boiled doctor”

Returning to the OP's first example, where it is argued that the following use of hard-boiled carries positive connotations, I would disagree.

That blood-shed would make even the most hard-boiled soldiers cry

What it means is that despite being the tough and unsentimental, these soldiers would be moved to tears if they witnessed that amount of blood shed. The adjective hard-boiled is used in juxtaposition with the soldiers' tears i.e., compassion.

  • Great. Thanks for the detailed answer! You are saying that in the first example, the word carries negative connotation. I think it is probably stemming from the fact that you see an unsentimental person in negative light. Please explain why do you think being unsentimental is bad? Btw, thanks for the edit. Jan 3, 2016 at 14:02
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    @JonyAgarwal the first sentence has a positive aspect because the writer suggests that these tough soldiers won't have lost their humanity, it is the "crying" that renders them in a more positive manner.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 3, 2016 at 14:18
  • I don't know why I'm not able to tag you. In the last comment I was using unsentimental in place of hard-boiled. But I think the word 'hard-boiled' in the sentence denotes the positive qualities of the 'soldier' and you said in the answer that it doesn't carry positive connotation. Now you are saying the opposite in the comment ?! Jan 3, 2016 at 14:24
  • It's the word "cry" that tells us the soldiers are human, not 'hard-boiled' I also said if you were a general you'd prefer a tough soldier than a sentimental one, it depends, CandiedOrange also says as much.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Jan 3, 2016 at 14:32
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    Ha! I think I understood you completely now. I think we were talking about different things. The term 'hard-boiled' carries a negative connotation for the soldiers but removing it will not have any changes in the positive vibe of the sentence. It won't be any less positive. And what you said is true that it's the crying which renders the sentence in a positive manner. Vibe to a sentence is what connotation is to a word. So even though the sentence is positive the word here carries a negative connotation. Agreed? Jan 4, 2016 at 9:38

The term has a positive connotation in hard-boiled confectionery.

It may well be because the consumer here is not bothered really about the connotation of the term but only with the result.

From fao.org:

Hard-boiled sweets

These are made from a concentrated solution of sugar which has been heated and then cooled to form a solid mass containing less than 2 per cent moisture.


The term 'hard-boiled' arose in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was initially strongly associated with criminality. However, by the late 1910s people began to play with the notion of hard-boiled and it took on 'positive' connotations whilst also continuing to convey the sense of being tough and unsentimental. This play with the term began with early 20th century American journalists and also appears frequently in early movie criticism. The positive connotations of hard-boiled are urban in origin and it suggests that being or seeming tough and unsentimental was being entertained as a positive way of dealing with city life. Throughout the 1920s, there are many fictional characters, many in movies, that explore the 'positive' side of being hard-boiled. Some contemporary critics and humorists referred to the 1920s as the 'hard-boiled age.'

Early use of 'hard-boiled' from the Daily Capital Journal Feb 20 1897 Early use of 'hard-boiled' Daily Capital Journal Feb 20 1897

'Hard-boiled age' joke from the Chicago Packer 25 April 1925

'Hard-boiled age' joke from the Chicago Packer 25 April 1925


Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary gives three definitions of hard-boiled (in order of chronological appearance, from earliest to most recent):

hard-boiled adj (1886) 1 a : devoid of sentimentality : TOUGH {a hard-boiled drill sergeant} b : of, relating to, or being a detective story featuring a tough unsentimental protagonist and a matter-of-fact attitude toward violence 2 : HARDHEADED, PRACTICAL {hard-boiled business decisions}

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2011) has a somewhat similar set of definitions, although it entry includes the literal meaning as well:

hard-boiled adj. 1. Cooked by boiling in the shell to a solid consistency. Used of eggs. 2. Callous; unfeeling. 3. Unsentimental and practical; tough.

I think it's reasonable to view "practical" as having positive connotations—so to the extent that hard-boiled can be used to mean "practical," it can be used in a positive (and even admiring) sense. However, Merriam-Webster didn't add the word "practical" to its definition 2a of hard-boiled until the Eighth Collegiate (1973), and American Heritage didn't introduce its third definition of hard-boiled (the one with "practical" in it) until the third edition of the AHDEL (1992)—so the emergence of this positive sense of hard-boiled seems to have been a fairly recent phenomenon.

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