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The only times I have ever heard the description "hard bark on [someone]" was in film. Specifically, just two films.

The first was a 1967 film, inspired by some short stories by Elmore Leonard, called Hombre:

Grimes: Mister, you've got a lot of hard bark on you walkin' down here like this. Now, I owe you. You put two holes in me.
John Russell: Usually enough for most of 'em.

The second was in 2007's No Country for Old Men:

El Paso Sheriff: He's just a goddamn homicidal lunatic, Ed Tom.
Ed Tom Bell: I'm not sure he's a lunatic.
El Paso Sheriff: Yea well what would you call him?
Ed Tom Bell: Well, sometimes I think he's pretty much a ghost.
El Paso Sheriff: Oh he's real all right.
Ed Tom Bell: Oh yea.
El Paso Sheriff: Yea all that over at the Eagle Hotel? Huh, it's beyond everything.
Ed Tom Bell: Yea. Got some hard bark on him.
El Paso Sheriff: Well... well, that don't hardly say it. He shoots the desk clerk one day, walks right back in the next and shoots a retired army colonel.

Now, I infer from these two passages that this is a colorful way of saying someone has behaved in a manner that is beyond audacious. It means someone has a lot of effrontery, or what some call "crust," which The Free Dictionary calls

  1. Informal Insolence; audacity; gall.

In any case, please don't respond to tell me the meaning. I feel I already know it. The important thing is, I have never heard this expression outside of these two movie instances.

Moreover, a web search only yields references to these two films. And an NGram search yields no instances of either, though there are some instances of the unadorned "hard bark" (almost always involving literal trees, but occasionally used metaphorically, as in a translation of Yukio Mishima's novel Decay of the Angel, which refers to "a hard bark of contempt.")

So my question is this:

Is referring to someone who demonstrates a certain egregious indulgence in effrontery or gall as having "hard bark on him" a cinematic neologism, or did it arise from actual usage? It certainly sounds like it could be a rural expression, but how can we know whether it is or not?

Note: The fact that it appears in two films is not sufficient for me to decide that these cases arose independently. The Coen brothers, who created No Country for Old Men from Cormac McCarthy's novel, are attentive students of film, and McCarthy himself may have heard the expression from the 1967 Paul Newman film. [It is worth noting that I have read all of Elmore Leonard's published work, yet don't recall reading that expression there, though Leonard was certainly capable of taut, expressive dialogue.]

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    @user067531 ??? No. It means he’s got guts, chutzpah, temerity, like a tree with hard [tree]bark and so can take a hit. The bark here is armor. It’s tough armor. Just like OP’s “crust”. – Dan Bron Oct 29 '19 at 20:59
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The exact usage is rare, but I've been able to dig up several published examples. So far, there are no examples of hard bark on [someone] before Hombre, but I have provided an example of hard bark from the 19th century to show that the general concept was around.


Recent hard barks

The only instance of the phrase I found in the Corpus of Historical American English was from a Sports Illustrated article from March 11, 1991 titled "The Last Return," which appears to describe Lombardi's treatment of Packers running back Travis Williams:

While playing in front of Packer coach Vince Lombardi during preseason camp, Williams became so nervous that he began dropping the ball. " I remember Lombardi taping up the football and putting a handle on it for Travis, " says Adderley. // Lombardi told Williams he wanted him to keep the ball with him at all times, even when he was sleeping. " Lombardi had a lot of hard bark on him, " Williams said, " but I was his boy -- his secret weapon, so to speak. "

And here's one from 2014 in the Hamilton, Ontario Spectator from 4 November 2014, "A name at last for the fiddler past" by Wilson Paul, courtesy of ProQuest:

Gary is 70 and has been a salesman at Burlington Nissan for some 30 years. It's a job, he admits, where "you've got to have a lot of hard bark on you." But he has music on his side. When Rompin' Ronnie Hawkins performed at Festival of Friends this summer, Gary was up there belting it out with him.

Then another result ties the usage directly to the 2005 novel The Hot Kid by Elmore Leonard - the author of the novel from which Hombre was adapted. Actually, it turns out this is a phrase that Leonard uses in at least four books, according to Google Books, and possibly more.

Then there's a review of The Minister of Chance, which appears to be a podcast or audio show, from the Guardian on March 16, 2011 by Elisabeth Mahoney:

The writing has a directness about it that reminds you this isn't an Afternoon Play ("I've come to talk to the ambassador, fuck off") and there are memorable phrases: "Something put a hard bark on you," is how one character describes Kitty.

Then a trainer about a horse race, from the Louisville Courier - Journal on October 9, 2008, "Filly takes back seat to no one":

For his part, Reynolds admitted it was hard watching Big Brown win the Derby.

"I'd have to be full of baloney to tell you (otherwise), with something I had my hand in just a few months prior to it," he said. "... I'd have loved to have taken a starring role in that. You have to have a lot of hard bark on you in this game, or you're not going to make it.

The phrase appears in these and other examples with no gloss, as if it should be evident what it means based on context or prior knowledge.


Older hard bark

So what am I not finding? Exact phrases before Hombre. Instead, the results for the newspaper databases I've tried pre-1960 are fairly general and, when they refer to hard bark, do so in a clear figurative sense. Take this entry from December 3, 1804 in the Boston Gazette titled "Guilty, or Not Guilty?"

There are only two other characters in the piece which are entitled to so much notice, those of Major Corslet and [?] Harry. The Veteran is a blunt, but doating father, "a hard bark hiding a soft core;" whose natural irratibility [sic], contending with his affection for his only child, involves him in continual inconsistency.

  • It's funny that I don't remember it from reading, only from the film. But I would bet it's something Leonard came up with on his own or heard from someone's idiolect and that started the ball rolling for all the other cases we've seen since then. I mean, it is a great expression, especially when you hear Richard Boone's voice intoning it. – Robusto Oct 30 '19 at 21:27
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The Concise New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (google books) gives the following sense of bark:

the skin noun 1758 UK

My sense of hard bark on someone would be akin to thick or tough skinned. I think the usage of bark=skin pre-dates the cinematic era as posed in you question, but I too cannot find any reference to hard bark that predate the cinematic era other than those you posted.

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Several modern instances of the term come from sources slightly older than those cited in TaliesinMerlin's answer. The earliest is from Elmore Leonard, City Primeval: High Noon in Detroit (1980), reprinted in Elmore Leonard's Double Dutch Treat: Three Novels (1986):

Sweety had hard bark on him, but he had been messing with dope lately and he wasn't sure where Sweety stood on matters of trust and not fucking an old buddy. Who could you trust these days?

From Mike Wales, Hangman's Legacy (1983), where the expression appears in three separate places [combined snippets]:

"Go to hell," someone called from he waterhole an Vent decided whoever it was had a lot of hard bark on him. The voice carried the tough no-quarter sound of a man who wasn't sitting in the middle of his first siege.

...

“Yep, theys Vent Torrey, his sister, whos married to a gent useta be a marshal over in Colorado somewhere. They say he's got a lot of hard bark on him too. Then theys old man Hawks. Leatherhand killed all four of his sons in one hell of a shootout. Let the old man live after mangling his hand with a shotgun."

...

Sharp had a lot of hard bark on him, Spencer knew, but even his great strength had limits. No man could be expected to carry a bullet hole in him for three days through a desert where the heat during the day would break a thermometer and during the night freeze the mercury in one.

Also, from an unidentified piece on the death penalty in Newsweek magazine (1984) [combined snippets]:

United Press International reporter Dan Lohwasser, who was there when James W. Hutchins was executed in North Carolina by injection last month, insists that method is still more humane than dying in the gas chamber—as he watched murderer Jimmy Lee Gray do last September. "I thought I had some pretty hard bark on me from being in Vietnam, but I was pretty shook up" after Gray's execution, says Lohwasser.

From an unidentified article in Civil War Times Illustrated, volume 23 (1984) [combined snippets]:

It as now about 7:30 a.m., and Brigadier General Thoma J. Churchill's Arkansas infantry division was nearing the field. Churchill himself was a veteran of bloody battles at Wilson's Creek, Missouri, and Pea Ridge, Arkansas, and had a lot of hard bark on him, but the four small brigades of his division had already suffered heavily in the Louisiana fighting, marched 27 miles through the mud the previous day, and been on the road to Jenkins' Ferry since midnight.

And from Jake Logan, Slocum Busts Out (1990):

"You got some hard bark on you," Slocum said, "bracin' a man while he's at his pleasure."

"Find he's more reasonable with his boots off."

...

Powers came to—to find One-Eye was standing over him, covered with blood and dust. The outlaw's left arm was fractured and hanging useless, but in his right fist was a cocked Colt.

"You got some hard bark on you, old man. ...

...

"You've got some hard bark on you, even thinkin' stuff like that. Them friends of yours have robbed me of eighty grand, shot me in the back, and now you want to lock me up in a hard-rock slave-labor prison."

The most striking factoid here is that the earliest of these matches—from 1980—is in a novel by Elmore Leonard, who is also the author of the novel Hombre (1960)—the 1967 movie version of which Robusto cites in his question as the earliest instance of the expression hard bark on [someone]" that he is aware of from any source. I ran a search in snippet view for "hard bark" in to editions of Hombreone from 1967 and the other from 1986—and neither yields a match for the phrase.

According to IMDb, the screenplay for the film version of Hombre was written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, based on Leonard's novel; so it is possible that Ravetch and/or Frank is responsible for the "hard bark on you" line in the film version and that it never appeared in the novel. But that makes Leonard's use of the expression in a 1980 novel an interesting coincidence, if nothing else.

It seems noteworthy, too, that several of the matches for the expression during the period 1967–1990 are from novels about the Wild West, starting with Hombre. Nevertheless, I couldn't find an entry for it in any of several cowboy and American West slang dictionaries—nor is it included in J.L.Lighter's usually reliable Dictionary of American Slang on Historical Principles (1997). All of these dead-ends—and the fact that no one has found a relevant instance of "hard bark on [someone]" from before 1967—suggest that the expression is not especially old. On the incomplete record available, it seems that Elmore Leonard may be the likeliest original source, if the saying didn't arise organically as regional slang; still, I wouldn't bet the house on that conclusion.

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