There's an expression "hard by", which I understand to mean "nearby", "close by". I don't know if it could be called an idiom, but it baffled me when I first encountered it in the translation of Historia Calamitatum (“the castle of Corbeil, which is hard by the city of Paris”). Back then I thought it an archaism, but since then I've encountered it in modern contexts, e.g. “In a bar hard by P.P. Layouts, Richard Hnatt sat sipping a Tequila Sour” (Philip Dick).

What's the origin of this expression? Etymonline mentions:

O.H.G. harto "extremely, very,"

in the etymology of 'hard', and I can see some connection, but it's vague.

Also, aside its rarity, can it be used interchangeably with "close by", or is there a small semantic difference I can't percieve?

4 Answers 4


Hard by can be used both as a preposition and an adverb. The OED’s earliest recorded use as the former is from 1526. Its meaning is ‘Close by; in close proximity to; close to, very near to’ and it is described as somewhat archaic.

As an adverb, it is first recorded nine years later, with the similar meaning ‘In close local proximity; close by, very near’.

The adverb hard can mean ‘In close proximity, of time or place’ on its own, and is first recorded in that sense in the fifteenth century, but such use may now be infrequent.

  • 1
    I'd never heard this usage before, and it sounded rather awkward initially. On further reflection, though, I suppose that, when describing something that is very close in proximity, the usage of hard in hard by wouldn't too much different from, say, hard pressed.
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 11:57
  • 1
    @J.R. I'd thought about hard-pressed, and in some cases it may have the meaning of close proximity in time or space, but in others the meaning may be rather less specific. A typical OED citation (from 1864) is 'It was now hard upon three o'clock.' Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 12:04
  • I also thought of "Make a hard left turn." So, hard can mean very (roughly), but I can see why that would fall out of favor, owing to hard having so many other meanings, like stern, complex, or firm. So, one wouldn't use hard to mean very in phrases like "He was a hard easy judge" or "She wore a hard shiny gem" or "We took hard lengthy tests" or "That was a hard long trip" or "The astonomer found a hard bright star", because it'd be too easy to interpret hard to mean stern/diamond-like/difficult/arduous, respectively. (I'm not sure how I'd interpret hard bright star).
    – J.R.
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 15:26

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms give this example: "Their house was hard by ours". I'd replace it with close to rather than close by (American English).

[Edit: The book is viewable on Amazon.com, but the page with this entry isn't part of the preview. I found that at http://books.google.com.tw after doing a search on Google Ngrams viewer for "hard by" and clicking on the "hard by" option.]

[Edit: It's under the entry hard on 1. Also, hard upon, hard by. In close proximity, as in The police were hard on the heels of the thieves, or It was hard upon three o'clock, or Their house is hard by ours. The variants are used less than hard on. [Second half of 1700s]]

  • 1
    Linked source came up as a blank page, saying something about reaching an unavailable page. Perhaps add an extract from it to your answer Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 9:15
  • @jwpat7: Sorry about that. Will do.
    – user21497
    Commented Dec 10, 2012 at 9:51

I'm going to re-offer the likelihood of a nautical origin. Sailing "hard by" a buoy means sailing close to it. "Hard up" means sailing close to the wind. "Hard-a-lee" means to push the tiller hard to the leeward side.


In 1600s England (Henry VIII's time) someone who refused to plead guilty or not guilty could be forced to plead by having heavy weights placed upon their prone body until -- being "hard pressed" indeed -- they made their plea. Typically, boards or a door were placed over the body, which was laid on the ground, and weights placed on top.

I have no English language proof of this being the origin of the expression, but the historical fact fits.

  • Correction: 1500s, as in 16th Century. My mistake. Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 0:54
  • Please edit your answer for the correction.
    – tchrist
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 1:00

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