His pursuers were hard on his heels, so he hid in a thicket hard by. The first use of "hard" means close in time and the second use means close in distance. Was there an early use of "hard" just to mean close? Does a hard-edge abstraction refer to a painting in which changes occur close by? (This last question, seems to be a stretch, but I've never heard anyone talk about a hard-edge knife.) I know "hard on his heels" sounds like close in distance, but that's not how it's used: cf. Cambridge Dictionary Online come/follow hard/hot on the heels of sth ​ "to happen very soon after something"

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    There's also "hard left" for a quick left turn.
    – rajah9
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 19:25
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    @rajah9: Hard left refers to the amount of turning, not to how quickly you turn. It distinguishes, for example, between two paths that turn to the left, one at a greater angle of turn than the other.
    – Drew
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 19:42
  • @Drew, good point. I can imagine a hard left for an angle greater than, say, 90 degrees, which would entail more turning. I can also imagine a chase scene in a movie where "hard left" means to turn into an alley. The angle is still 90 degrees, but the driving must be precise. And consider the sailing command: "hard to port"? I see this meaning both turning quickly and at a greater angle.
    – rajah9
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 20:14
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    @rajah9: Not to mention the sailing term "hard a-lee".
    – Drew
    Commented Jan 12, 2017 at 21:37
  • As rajah9 and Drew suggest, "hard" is a nautical term. Turning "hard a-lee" means pushing the tiller hard to the lee side of the boat (which turns the boat windward), and "hard to port" means to push the tiller strongly to the port (left) side, turning the boat right. The expression "hard by" is also used in sailing to imply coming alongside another boat or a dock or some such, and the expression likely is related to the effort involved in this maneuver.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Jan 13, 2017 at 0:52

1 Answer 1


It is not the word "hard" but the word "by" that means "close to", as evidenced by this excerpt from etymonline.com:

by (prep.) - Old English be- (unstressed) or bi (stressed) "near, in, by, during, about," from Proto-Germanic *bi "around, about" (source also of Old Saxon and Old Frisian bi "by near," Middle Dutch bie, Dutch bij, German bei "by, at, near," Gothic bi "about"), from *umbi (cognate with second element in PIE *ambhi "around;" see ambi-).

In light of this, "hard" is likely meant as an intensifier, indicating that the thicket in your example sentence is very close to the man being pursued. This sense of the word "hard" is in turn evidenced by this excerpt from etymonline.com:

hard (adj.) - Old English heard "solid and firm, not soft," also, "difficult to endure, carried on with great exertion," also, of persons, "severe, rigorous, harsh, cruel," from Proto-Germanic *hardu- (source also of Old Saxon hard, Old Frisian herd, Dutch hard, Old Norse harðr "hard," Old High German harto "extremely, very," German hart, Gothic hardus "hard"), from PIE *kortu- (source also of Greek kratos "strength," kratys "strong"), suffixed form of root *kar-/*ker- "hard."

  • Excellent answer. That point had escaped me when I wrote my earlier comment. Less obviously the case with hard on (his heels), since the preposition on is not being used literally. But both hard by and hard on (his heels) are idiomatic in modern English.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 10:07
  • I am a little surprised that in its voluminous entry on hard in all its possible senses, the OED does not contain the idiomatic forms we are considering here. Perhaps the answer can be found in the very first, sense 1, definition of hard which is Not soft; resistant to force or pressure; firm, solid, unyielding; robust.. I think unyielding is important here, especially with hard on his heels.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 14, 2017 at 10:27

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