Is it an old farming metaphor, or a military saying? Where did this(these) saying(s) originate?

  • 4
    Is this a possible candidate for the eggcorn tag?
    – zpletan
    Mar 27, 2012 at 18:48
  • 1
    This is in the eggcorn database, unfortunately no genealogy is given. Mar 27, 2012 at 19:05

6 Answers 6


The original form of the phrase appears to be "a hard row to hoe". Now, "tough row to hoe" is found at least as far back as 1890:

She's got a tough row to hoe, Dilly Gage has. She used to try to keep folks from knowin' how cantankerous he was, but she couldn't.

while 1963 seems to be the earliest occurrence of "tough road to hold", and it is noted as an error:

Certain little errors may be the result of spelling, hearing, or carelessness - "a tough road to hold"

But we find "hard row to hoe" even earlier. It's found in Dickens' All the Year Round magazine in 1890, but the earliest use is no later than 1818:

He loves to contend with difficulties; and if he had not a hard row to hoe, would place himself in some sphere demanding effort, in order to extricate himself.

Since it's used without explanation in the 1818 book, it must have been regarded as a well-known expression even by then. So the origin is as a farming metaphor, and seems to be chiefly American in usage.

  • There is a supposed 1800 reference in that Google search, but it is wrong. Google indexed the year that work incorrectly. It is not from 1800, but from 1899, as you can see in the title page and headers of the work itself. Mar 27, 2012 at 19:38
  • 1
    haha - I saw your comment as soon as I hit Post your answer. You're quite right, of course. So I just went back and changed mine to the next oldest citation, in 1818. I doubt the road/hold variants would have turned up until much later, but to be honest I can't be bothered to check that myself just now. Mar 27, 2012 at 19:48
  • 1
    The 1818 date is actually 1848. An engraving on the previous page is dated 1848, and the date on the title page is smudged and looks like 1818, but seems to be a smudged 1848. And Charles Dickens, whose magazine it appears in, was was only six in 1818.
    – PJB
    Mar 7, 2017 at 22:19

The road and hold variants are eggcorns deriving from the orginal "Tough/hard row to hoe", an agricultural expression relating to hoeing one’s row (with an actual tool) while working in the field, that goes back to at least 1818.


I live in the South where much cotton is raised. Cotton was "hoed" to get rid of the weeds growing in the rows with the cotton. Believe me, "hard row to hoe" is the correct term. Through error, it has become something else.


A "tough row to hoe" does in fact come from early American farming in days with limited machinery - in other words they used a hoe in the field to pull weeds from rows of crops. It was hard work done by strong men in hot fields especially across the South. In talking with my father who actually did some hoeing when he was a kid, he thinks the saying comes from the so-called "down row." There was some equipment used in the field on certain crops which caused the furtherest row out to be damaged somewhat and knocked the crop down. When hoeing, you work hard to pull weeds and not damage the crop itself. So, when men hoed a field ther may be 15 or 20 workers all of which take a row which is theirs to hoe. When the worker reaches the end of the row and has finished, they walk down to the next row that does not have a worker assigned to it. The men wanted to avoid this so-called down row as they went to their next row becasue it was -- you guessed it, "a tough row to hoe."

Frankly, it bothers me to hear the unknowing say "a tough road to hoe." No one hoes roads other than convicts. Men hoed crops.

  • But depending how you looked at it, hoeing a paved road would be either trivial (no weeds), or extremely hard (breaking asphalt with a hoe)
    – Oldcat
    Mar 29, 2014 at 0:28

The expression appears to be American. Frontiersman and Congressman, Davy Crockett (the "King of the Wild Frontier"), used the expression in his book, An Account of Col. Crockett's Tour to the North and Down East (1835).

The two earliest examples I could find are both from the same magazine in 1823, and suggest that the expression had already moved into idiomatic use by that time. Although most of the early examples of the idiom I have found refer to a "hard" row to hoe, even the now more familiar "tough" row appeared in 1823:

"[I]t seems that the French have rather a tough row to hoe, and are likely to get more kicks than coppers, to pay for their toils and dangers in Spain." (Italics in original), New England Farmer, Volume 1, Number 48, June 28, 1823, page 383.

"Still the Greeks have a "hard row to hoe." The Turks are collecting fresh armies, and threaten to overrun the Peninsula." The New England Farmer, Volume 1, Number 40, May 3, 1823, page 318.


I believe the road/hoe, and the road/hold sayings are the results of mishearing, or purposely changing the original row/hoe saying. Similarly, on occasions, I have changed the expression "don't look a gift horse in the mouth" to "don't lick a sick horse in the mouth" just to get a laugh. However, we all know the original meaning.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.