Twain's use of 'hard-boiled'

The essay by your staff member Gfactor on the origin of ‘hard-boiled’ (excerpted below) was fascinating, especially in its reference to an essay by Mark Twain (whom I have adored all my life) as its first identified appearance.

But I must disagree with your definition of Twain’s use of the phrase as meaning ‘cheap’ or ‘petty.’

In the context of that passage you quoted - “a hundred million tons of A-number-one fourth-proof, hard-boiled, hide-bound grammar” - its inclusion in a string of descriptive phrases having in common a sense of ‘sturdily built’ or ‘high quality’ seems clearly to indicate Twain is using it in that later sense you mentioned, ‘hard to beat.’

Steve Sullivan
Port Jefferson Station, NY
The Oxford English Dictionary locates its earliest appearance in an essay by Mark Twain, written in 1886 for delivery as a speech, in which he defends Ulysses Grant’s use of English:

What do we care for grammar when we think of those thunderous phrases, “Unconditional and immediate surrender,” “I propose to move immediately upon your works,” “I propose to fight it out on this line if it takes all summer.” [Critic Matthew Arnold] would doubtless claim that that last phrase is not strictly grammatical, and yet it did certainly wake up this nation as a hundred million tons of A-number-one fourth-proof, hard-boiled, hide-bound grammar from another mouth could not have done.

…Through a series of examples he [etymologist Peter Tamony] traces the evolution of the phrase’s meaning from “cheap” or “petty” (the sense in which Twain had used it), which is where it stood circa 1917, toward something more like “hard, shrewd, keen.” Somewhere along the way, the egg part got dropped, but that’s obviously the key to the phrase’s origin. Tamony relates an old joke in which a hard-boiled egg is described as something that’s “hard to beat,” a pun that relies in part on its reference to a cheap person – i.e., someone who drives a hard bargain. It’s not much of a jump from “tough to take advantage of” to just plain tough…

Hi Steve. Welcome to the Straight Dope Message Board. It’s customary here to include a link to the staff report in question. Allow me:

Nice catch, Steve. I am inclined to agree with you about Twain’s meaning of hard-boiled being positive as it was used. The egg allusion also might offer the connotation of something set and unchanging to the mix.

Welcome to the SDMB. You will find many lovers of the language here. Some are already raising eyebrows at my use of allusion.

My reading of Twain’s use of hard-boiled is that it has the sense of “thoroughly cooked” - thus he is talking about grammer that is quite thoroughly worked through, “well done”, if you will.

But what catches my eye is his use of “hide-bound”. Nowadays it means dyed-in-the-wool, stuck in the mud, etc. His intent here is something different; and given his familiarity with the printing industry, I’m sure the term had a very specific meaning for him. But I’m not sure what. Was hide-bound merely a synonym for leather-bound, and thus suggesting high quality, or was a hide binding rather less than a leather binding? At any rate, his understanding of the term obviously was different from the contemporary meaning.

But rather than hijack this thread, I would suggest that Gfactor has here a subject for another report. :wink:

The way I understood it, Twain was going on about how someone who used strict grammar, which he says is hide-bound (inflexible, conservative, tight) would not create phrases like the ones he quotes earlier in the paragraph:

In this context, hide-bound is an excellent metaphor because he’s pointing out that, in some cases grammar can hold us back, restrict our motion as it were, like an overtight hide, especially if we are pedantic about it.

The term “hide bound” reminds me that leather was boiled to make it harder and inflexable, most often for helmets. I have a very old hockey helmet made of boiled leather, I have seen older firemen’s helmets and cycling helmets made the same way. Boiled leather would have been a commonly understood connotation in Twain’s era.

It may be a reference to boiled eggs, but it’s not really clear enough to be certain. I’m personally more inclined to my leather theory.

You may be right. It’s hard to tell, from this reference. There are, however, several other references from about the same time that include “egg” after hard-boiled. And while Twain’s might be the first written example, the phrase was probably used in speech before Twain used it. Was Twain shortening this phrase or was he describing the leather? I doubt that’s a question that can be answered for certain.

In support of your boiled leather theory, I offer the OED for hard-boiled as applied to clothing:

and also note that Twain’s example is sort of isolated. As I noted, most of the other early references are to hard-boiled egg. You could argue that Twain’s usage wasn’t related to the current usage.

Well, I got interested in following up on this, and tonight I have the time.

hard-boiled, as an adjective(not applying to eggs), seems to appear, before 1900, in print in US papers more that you would expect from the OED cites. You have to remember that the OED cites for A-H were usually done prior to 1989, when searching was done in the old fashioned way, not by electronic databases possible with today’s technology. And, the OED qutie often uses only one or two cites/century. That’s what they have to do with as many cites as they sometimes have.

Using my Newspaperarchive database, I found the following:

You guys take it from here.

I suppose research by samclem on a reference to Twain would be quite hard to beat! :smiley:

I’ll make one observation here, with no supporting cite (though I’m sure some can easily be found): There was a custom during the 19th Century of boiling a dress shirt, and references to someone wearing (or figuratively being) a “boiled shirt” seemed fairly common. My impression is an attitude combining pomposity and cheapness is implied. I believe but am not certain that at least a few such references used “hard-boiled shirt.” Perhaps that less-than-valuable comment will help lead those with better searching resources to more useful references.

I still see references to “boiled wool” as a common fabric in suits and dresses.

Now that I know that boiling leather was a common practice for making leather hard, the “hard-boiled, hide-bound grammar” makes much more sense. I had forgotten that grammar was often used as a substitute for “English language grammar textbook.”

I just spotted a contemporary use of “hard-boiled” that completes this circle nicely.

It’s in Dorothy Parker’s 1931 review of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key.