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Hard lines

Q From Addeane Caelleigh, USA: While recently re-reading an Anthony Trollope novel, I twice saw the phrase hard lines, which I understood in context but do not know why it has that meaning. A little research confirmed that it meant misfortune or bad luck but not why. Can you help?

A You would have to go back in time some way — though not as far as the period of a Trollope novel — to find this phrase used unselfconsciously and seriously in the sense of ill luck or bad fortune. More recently, it has become an interjection sympathising with a friend’s bad luck (“Hard lines, old chap!”) but it’s dated and tends to be humorous in intent when it does appear, often in those graveyards of antique clichés, newspaper headlines and the sports pages.

Because it is opaque, a couple of intriguing suggestions have been made about where it comes from. (We’re certain, by the way, that it has nothing to do with phrases like taking a hard line, taking an uncompromising or unyielding stand.)

It was suggested in editions of John Camden Hotten’s Slang Dictionary in the 1860s that it was a soldier’s term for hard duty in the lines in front of the enemy. The Oxford English Dictionary argues, on the basis of its early citations and perhaps also the fact that it was common among seafarers, that it may originally have been a nautical term. It is easy to imagine its being linked to working the ropes on board ship in icy weather.

It is now accepted that lines is a figurative term based on this Biblical appearance:

The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.

Psalms 16:5, from the King James Bible, 1611. The OED argues that lines here refers to the marking out of land for a dwelling-place.

As a result of this verse, lines came to mean one’s lot, one’s condition in life, in particular as it has been determined by fate or destiny. It’s easy to see how hard lines could have developed from it to mean ill fortune.

The OED’s first example is from our old friend Sir Walter Scott, in Redgauntlet, 1824. A further pointer to its not being nautical is a number of land-based earlier examples that electronic searches are now able to provide. The earliest I’ve found is this:

In its direful Circumstances, lies the greatest Hardship of Poverty. It sometimes afflicts like a judicial Fatality, a Famine or a Plague; having no Corn in Egypt perhaps; no Money in the Land of the Living; no Sustenance in a poor Family; nothing to provide for an ordinary Livelihood, nor to procure a common Maintenance of a Meal’s Meat or the meanest Necessaries of Life, it may be, to stop the Mouths of a Wife and Children a-starving at Home, for Want of due Succour and their daily Bread. These are very hard Lines in Truth!

The Royal Marriage, by Oswald Dykes, 1722.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 10 Oct. 2009

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 10 October 2009.