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Particularly in British English, a common saying in response to someone's complaining about something is, "hard cheese". This basically means, "tough luck". How did this expression come about; what is unlucky about hard cheese?

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  • Might be interesting to know that, while I'd say this expression is very rare in the US (I've certainly never heard of it), we do have "tough cookies" with the same meaning.
    – Casey
    Nov 27, 2021 at 6:32

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"Hard cheese" is like when someone says "That's not good." "hard cheese" has the meaning of something unpleasant that has happened to you, hence the bad luck, because in order for bad things to happen to you, you would need bad luck (or so the reasoning goes).

Phrase Finder gives its origin:

This slang term for 'bad luck!' is British in origin and is now becoming rather archaic even there, although it is still used. It dates from the early 19th century and was used then just as a general indication of unsatisfactoriness. This piece, taken from a play called The Tiger at Large, which was printed in a collection of plays called The Acting National Drama, edited by Benjamin Webster, 1837, is the earliest citation I've come across:

Jem. His wages was too low. Don't you think a pound a month, and find one's self is hard cheese?

Hard cheese has, of course, got a literal meaning - cheese which is old, dried up and considered indigestible. That opinion was expressed in A Cyclopaedia of Practical Receipts, 1845:

Beer and porter should be particularly avoided. Hard cheese, unripe fruit, and especially beans, are also objectionable.

(Note: Receipts are what we now call recipes.)

The figurative meaning of 'hard cheese' clearly derives as an allusion to an unwelcome and indigestible course of events.

Hope that helps.

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  • (Note: Receipts are what we now call recipes.) In view of the contents of the book, "receipt" was more likely to be what we now call a prescription or medicine. OED Receipt (n.) IV 12.a. Medicine. A statement of the ingredients and procedure necessary for making a medicinal preparation, a prescription; (also) a medicine made according to such a prescription. More generally: a remedy or cure (esp. for a disease). -- 1. Now historical or archaic. -- 1741 G. Berkeley Let. in Wks. (1871) IV. 266 The receipt of a decoction of briar-roots for the bloody flux.
    – Greybeard
    Jan 8, 2021 at 17:34
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The usage comes from rural dairy farmers of UK and Ireland making cheese for themselves from semi-skimmed milk because they sold the cream/butter off to wealthier people to make a living. the semi-skimmed milk cheese was of poorer taste and much harder – therefore, hard cheese! It essentially means something unpleasant or not as lucky as those with money who can afford the cream! video on the topic: https://twitter.com/daera_ni/status/1463839230782758912?s=20

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I don't know if the following naval battle has a relation with the origin of the "hard cheese" expression. Anyway, I like the story.

During the brief Uruguayan War (August 1864-February 1865), an Uruguayan ship ran out of cannonballs. The commander of the vessel hit upon a new weapon: stale Dutch cheese. The captain ordered to load cannons with the hard cheese.

When they fired again, the first two cheeses went over the target. The third shot was lucky, strucking the main mast of the enemy ship, shattering it to the extent that two sailors were killed by cheese shrapnel (bad luck!).

Another potential origin may also be related to navy (speculation without any evidence): "Hard cheese" was a usual part of the sailors food in the 18th century. Considering the sailors quality of life at that time, eating "hard cheese" wasn't a chance.

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  • Other answers show the expression predates 1864.
    – Stuart F
    Nov 26, 2021 at 14:01

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