Word Connections: Hard, Soft, & Easy

In this episode of Word Connections, we look at two distinct meanings for the word “hard”, along with the opposite words “soft” and “easy”. As usual, we look at the history of these words and at related words in other languages. Then we complete the loop by finding additional words in English that are closely connected to the foreign words

In English we use the word “hard” to mean quite a few different things. We might refer to a “hard surface”, a “hard test”, a “hard rain”, a “hard worker”, a “hard fact”, “hard cider”, or “hard water” — and in each case the word means something different. If we had to substitute a synonym for “hard” in each of these examples, we would probably use a different word in every case — such as “solid”, “difficult”, “heavy”, “diligent”, “proven”, “alcoholic”, and “mineral-laden”.

Sometimes we clarify the meaning of a word by mentioning its opposite. You would probably identify the opposite of “hard” as “soft” — in which case some synonyms for “hard” would be “solid” and “firm”. But under certain circumstances, you might say that the opposite of “hard” is “easy” — and in this case, the synonym for “hard” would be “difficult”. The pairs “hard/soft” and “hard/easy” define our two most common ways of using the word “hard”.

The word “hard” has been part of the English language for a very long time. The same word, with the same spelling (hard), can be found in Old English, although the word could also be spelled heard. In modern Dutch the corresponding word is hard, exactly the same as in English. In modern German the word is hart. For example, the German word steinhart means “rock hard” or “as hard as stone”. In all three of these languages, the word has remained essentially unchanged for a very long time. The same is true for the Scandinavian languages, which also come from old Germanic roots. In Norwegian the word is hard, in Swedish it is hård, and in Danish it is hårdt. You might say that this has been a hard word to change! (But note that this is a shift between the two principal meanings of “hard”, from “solid” to “difficult”.)

To translate the word “hard” to another language, it is helpful to first decide what you really mean. Are you are trying to suggest “solid”, or are you trying to say “difficult”? These two meanings have different translations in many languages. If the meaning is “solid” or “firm”, then the corresponding word in French is dur, and the Spanish word is duro. The word in Italian or Portuguese is also duro. All of these words are derived from dūrus, the Latin word for “hard”. Our English word “durable” comes from the Old French word durable — meaning long lasting or hard — which traces back to the Latin word dūrāre — meaning to last or harden — which in turn traces back to the same Latin root dūrus. The English word “duration” also traces back to the Latin dūrāre. The word “duration” means the time during which something lasts, so it is derived from the other meaning of dūrāre — “to last” rather than “harden”.

On the other hand, if your meaning is “difficult”, then you would translate “hard” as difícil in Spanish or Portuguese, and difficile in French or Italian. These words look similar to our English word “difficult”, and in fact all of them are derived from difficilis, the Latin word for difficult. In Latin, the opposite of difficilis is facilis — meaning “easy”. And so today the Spanish and Portuguese words for “easy” are fácil, while the French and Italian words for easy are facile. In English we also have the word “facile”, which again means “easy”, but most people don’t use this word in everyday speech. A more common word in English is “facility”. One meaning of “facility” is “the ability to do something easily”. For example, you might say “She whipped up that fancy dinner with such facility that you would think she was a professional chef.” In recent times the word “facility” has come to mean a building where a particular task can be accomplished — but the original idea was that the building “facilitates” the task. And of course “to facilitate” means to assist in order to make a task easier and more likely to be completed correctly.

In German there are a couple of words for “easy”, one of which is leicht — but the same German word also means “light”, as in lightweight or not heavy. It is “easy” to see how this dual meaning would have arisen — if an object is light, then it is easy to carry around. This can be compared to our dual use of the word “hard” — if a particular material is hard, then it is difficult to cut or shape the material. The German word leicht and the English word “light” are closely related, both descended from the corresponding word in the Proto-Germanic language.

If you use “hard” to mean “solid” or “firm”, then the opposite of hard is “soft”. The word “soft” is little changed from the Old English word sōfte, which meant agreeable, calm, or gentle. The concept of “gentle” explains the current meaning of “soft”, which is often applied to a comfortably pliable material, such as cotton. But we still use “soft” to mean gentle, as in “Even though I messed up the account, the boss was soft on me”. And we have terms like “soft-hearted”. The German word sanft and the Dutch word zacht are both related to our word “soft”, originating from the same ancestral word. However, the German word sanft can mean either gentle or soft. In fact, the preferred word in German for “soft” is weich.

German is not the only European language with multiple words for “soft”. In French the two most common words for soft are doux and souple. The word doux actually means “sweet”, as in sugary — but because “sweet” and “soft” are both pleasant sensations, the word doux has expanded its meaning to cover both concepts. The word souple can be translated as either “soft” or “flexible”, and therefore means the same thing as the English word “supple” — which came to us from the Old French souple, thanks to the Norman Conquest.

In Spanish, the words most commonly used to mean “soft” are suave and blando. We also use the word “suave” in English, having borrowed it not from Spanish, but from Old French. The original meaning of the French word was “agreeable” and in English the word now means “smoothly agreeable or polite”. The word blando also has a cognate in English — “bland”. We use “bland” to refer to something that is extremely mild, as in bland food, bland music, or bland speech. The word “bland” used to carry a positive connotation, meaning gentle or soothing. But now the word often carries a negative connection, referring to something so mild as to be completely dull and uninteresting. “Bland” and blando both trace back to the Latin word blandus, which meant soft.

In Italian there are several words that are commonly used to mean “soft”, but perhaps the most common is morbido. This seems an odd choice, because the word is derived from the Latin word morbidus, which means “disease”. The English word “morbidity”, which means the rate of sickness in a particular group or location, is from the same Latin root. We also have the adjective “morbid”, which means unhealthy or not wholesome, as in a “morbid curiosity” or a “morbid sense of humor”.

A concept that is closely related to “hard” is “rigid”. We have two common words for this concept — “rigid” and “stiff” — representing the two sides of the English family tree. The word “stiff” comes from the Old English stīf — representing the Germanic side of the tree — and is nearly identical to the Dutch word stijf and to the Danish and Norwegian words stiv. The word “rigid” comes from the Latin side of the tree, and is nearly identical to the French word rigide, the Italian word rigido, and the Spanish and Portuguese words rígido.

And that concludes our tour of the words “hard”, “soft”, and “easy”! Additional Word Connection stories will appear in the future!

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