What exactly does it mean to be a hard-ass?
Not a cheap ass. Not a smart ass. Not even a candy ass.
I’m talking about a hard-ass.
Do hard-asses play hardball? Are they transformational leaders, power-tripping authoritarians or both? Is being a hard-ass mostly about being particular? Or do some merely possess extremely developed glutes?
Let’s find out…
1) Merriam-Webster defines a hard-ass as “a tough, demanding or uncompromising person” and dates the first use of the term back to 1962.
Meanwhile, the late lexicographer of slang Eric Partridge breaks down “hard-ass” into both a noun and verb in his Routledge Dictionary of Modern American Slang and Unconventional English. On the noun side of things, he defines it as “a strict, unforgiving, unrelenting person,” and puts its first usage a little later than Merriam-Webster in 1966. Some of the real-world examples he cites:
- Elmore Leonard’s Freaky Deaky: “I bet you played the hard-ass, didn’t you. Show ‘em no fucking mercy.”
- Kevin Smith’s Mallrats: “I’m always talking to them and playing with them, but Silent Bob won’t join in. He’s a fucking hard-ass.”
- Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight: “You were a hard-ass, and you took his dad out, Sydney.”
As for its use as a verb, Partridge defines it two ways: 1) “to treat harshly” (the origins of which he places around 1961); and 2) “to endure a difficult situation” (roughly 1967). Again, a trio of pop-culture examples of hard-ass-as-verb:
- Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard: “You did it the easiest way you could and hard-assed the difference.”
- Darryl Ponicsan’s The Last Detail: “Do you think we’re gonna stand here and be hard-assed because some dude in Norfolk forgot to endorse our orders?”
- Elizabeth Lowell’s Running Scared: “The last thing Joey wants is nosy cops hard-assing him over the merchandize.”
And, of course, it can also be an adjective (meaning “uncompromising, unyielding, tough, stubborn,” which actually is the earliest usage, circa 1903). Hunter S. Thompson utilized it in this way in Hell’s Angels: “The original Oakland Angels were hard-ass brawlers[.]”
2) Daniel Siddiqi is a morphologist specializing in English, which means he studies how people form, process, store, learn and understand words. According to him, there are a lot of ways to use “ass” in the English language, but three are most relevant to “hard-ass”:
- “We say, ‘Get your ass back to work,’ or ‘I’ll fire your ass.’ There’s a bit of a literature on this, but essentially, ass here is a weird kind of pronoun.”
- “We say, ‘This was a difficult-ass choice,’ or ‘That’s a big-ass steak.’ In this case, ass is a suffix that attaches to (usually) an adjective to make the adjective *more*. When adjectives are modified this way, we call that intensification, and ‘-ass’ is an intensifier. Other intensifiers in English are ‘very,’ ‘really,’ ‘hella,’ etc. You use an intensifier when you really want to draw attention to a property.”
- “We have several compound nouns with ass. Off the top of my head: ‘smartass,’ ‘jackass,’ ‘hardass,’ ‘badass’ and ‘dumbass.’ I don’t know the etymology of all of these, but today, they’re all lumped together as a pejorative for ‘person.’ I think ‘hard-ass’ comes from horse riding, but I don’t know. It’s not super relevant though, because we don’t usually know the etymology of words we use.”
3) Siddiqi says the meaning of “ass” in “hard-ass” is connected to its ancient roots in the Common Germanic word “arse.” “Arse means butt, and it has meant that since before English was even a language,” he explains. “Before Old English existed, what would become English was a dialect of a language called Common Germanic (in the same way French and Spanish were both dialects of Latin). Arse was in Common Germanic.”
“So when English became its own language — the date for that is usually 440 CE — English already had the word arse,” Siddiqi continues. “Because it was in Common Germanic. It’s also in other languages that come from Common Germanic, including but not limited to Dutch, German, Icelandic, Swedish and Danish — though it’s pronounced pretty differently in all those languages.”
He adds, “How arse comes to be pronounced ass in some dialects is a sound change that happened more recently that created a pair of words where there was previously only one. This deleted the R and tweaked the vowel a bit. This created arse and ass. It also created burst and bust from burst and curse and cuss from curse.”
4) I ask Siddiqi to explain what fellow morphologist Diana Elgersma calls the “anal emphatic,” referring to our propensity to use words like “ass” and “butt” across many different contexts. “The ‘anal emphatic’ is the fact that we, in American English, have this tendency to use ass and butt as go-to intensifiers, such as ‘butt-ugly,’ which is a bit transparent in its meaning. My pet hypothesis is that this derives from ‘butt naked,’ but that’s a stab in the dark and has no basis in any research I’ve done. My favorite of these is ‘butt cold’ which I’ve heard modified with ‘ass’ to become ‘butt-ass cold.’”
5) Before I finish grilling Siddiqi, I want to know who he considers a “hard-ass.” “John Wayne popped right into my head,” he responds. “I’m not sure I could tell you why. Next up was Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s character in The Abyss, Lindsey Brigman, who described herself as a ‘cast-iron bitch.’”
6) Parents obviously can be major hard-asses. I’ve admittedly referred to own mother as a hard-ass. Same for my former colleauge John McDermott, who once wondered how his “hard-ass” dad could also be a Grateful Dead devotee, and MEL staff writer Andrew Fiouzi’s Persian father. “He was just very militant about organization and manners,” Fiouzi explains. “I appreciate his ways now, but at the time, he was definitely a hard-ass. That said, as I’ve gotten older, he’s turned into a total softie.”
7) Coaches are notorious hard-asses, too. (Hence this Reddit thread about which NFL coach is the biggest.) But maybe for the best? At least that was the case for MEL social editor Jeff Gross, who admits that his performance as a high-school water polo player was probably enhanced by his hard-ass coach. “He was basically ‘God,’” Gross says. “Imagine God is demanding you take a sport seriously. He got more out of me, that’s for sure, and he was a great leader. He was funny, which jibbed nicely with his hard-ass-ness. Sugar and spice, you know?”
8) “The real-life guy who comes to mind for me was a high school gym teacher named Mr. Youresh,” my fellow MEL staffer Miles Klee tells me. “He was a funny but very curmudgeonly guy, and at some point, they made him start teaching health classes, which he hated. Some students began pestering him about when they were gonna get to do the ‘egg baby’ project — you know, carry an egg around in a basket to see what it’s like to have a baby as a teenager. They described it to him and he’s like, ‘That’s bullshit’ and he made them do it with 15-pound sacks of flour instead. Because that’s how much an actual baby weighs.”
9) Not surprisingly then, on Rate My Professors, the site used to describe and evaluate college professors, various incarnations of hard-ass show up. My favorite mention, about Fredrik deBoer in the writing department at University of Rhode Island: “If you like the brilliant hard-ass type, he’s your guy. NOT easy and not your friend, but genuinely super smart and totally committed. Don’t take him if you’re looking for an easy grade. Says ‘effort isn’t a guarantor of success’ about 5 times a class.”
10) Michael, 29, who served four years in the Army, says the amount of hard-asses he encountered was a main reason why he wanted out after his initial enlistment was up. “The sergeants were all hard-asses. They could always find something to ridicule, nitpicking everything. For example, if my shoelaces were at all visible, I’d get screamed at, because protocol was to keep them tucked entirely into my boots,” he explains.
That’s probably why a number of people I spoke to consider the drill instructor played by R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket the quintessential hard-ass.
11) Finally, the stars, as with everything, have something to say about hard-asses. And so, I seek out our Astrologer in Chief Erin Taj about which signs are most likely to be hard-asses. “Capricorns are notorious hard-asses I find,” she tells me. “They’re very concerned with maintaining a certain level of excellence — publicly, but also within themselves. They have a tendency to scold their own inner child, and therefore, they demand the same level of excellence from others.
“Leos are similar in their need for public recognition and praise. They dare not disturb their reputation as perfect and ‘on top of things’ (just ask my mom lol… and myself).
“Then there’s Virgo. If you’ve ever had a Virgo boss, you know that they demand excellence in myriad ways, to the point that you never feel good enough to earn their respect or praise. But it’s all in an effort to make those around them better — it’s actually a public service. Seriously, if we didn’t have Virgo energy, no one would challenge themselves to be better than they are. And for that, I’m eternally thankful, no matter how hard-assed they are.”