Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Episode 229: Tough Nut to Crack


This week Shauna and Dan look into the phrase, a Tough Nut to Crack. Dan gets super confused about the history of window blinds and then does a quick Aaron Neville impression. Bonus: The best Superman actors

Copyright 2024 All Rights Reserved

Click to read more


 Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 229: Tough Nut to Crack
Record Date: March 24, 2024
Air Date: March 28, 2024


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Dan Pugh

And I’m Shauna Harrison

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Some people are a challenge to get to know. They might be quiet - less talkative than others. Or they may be someone who simply doesn’t discuss personal topics much at all. They might be referred to as a tough nut to crack.


Merriam-Webster Dictionary provides the simple definition,

a hard/tough nut (to crack)
noun phrase
: a person or thing that is difficult to deal with, understand, or influence
End quote

In the US, a tough nut to crack typically refers to a person who is hard to get to know. The phrase is sometimes used to describe someone who is merely less social, though it can also be used to comment on how closely a person keeps certain aspects of their personality such as their goals, desires, beliefs, intentions, and so on.

The phrase can also refer to a person who is challenging in other ways. And it isn’t only used to refer to people.

Under the word nut, the Oxford English Dictionary provides the following as one sense of the word,

With allusion to the difficulty of cracking hard-shelled nuts: a difficult question or problem; a matter or undertaking difficult to accomplish; a person hard to deal with, conciliate, etc. Now usually with crack, esp. in a hard (also tough) nut to crack.
End quote

This gives us a little information about how the phrase has been used over time. There are several variations and the meaning is somewhat flexible. Variations use the word hard or tough and some use only hard or tough and the word nut without mentioning cracking it open.

Dan, when do you think this phrase started showing up?

It started at least as early as the 1500s.

The first attestation we are going to take a look at is from The Moral Philosophy by Anton Francesco Doni, translated by Sir Thomas North, published in 1570.

Your Majesty hath even lighted right on the most stranglingest morsell, and the hardest Nutte to crack.
End quote;view=fulltext

Morsell was often used to refer to an idea or perplexing riddle - the kind of thought that sort of nags at you to where you come back to it every now and then for a little bit at a time. Like a thought to mull over.

Oxford English Dictionary provides several additional older citations including one from the periodical The Public Intelligencer from 1659. Here is the excerpt,
Now we have in our power most of the passages of the Country that are of any importance, except..Dammin, which is a hard Nut to crack.
End quote

The phrase was used by one of our commonly referenced societal figures. In one of his Letters from 1745, Benjamin Franklin includes the phrase,
Fortified towns are hard nuts to crack; and your teeth have not been accustomed to it.
End quote

The Phenix gazette, December 22, 1832, out of Alexandria, D.C. includes a section of letters and stories related to a Great Meeting in New York.
The following paragraph of a London editor is warranted by appearances. It is likely that if Great Britain and France attack Holland, they will have, in the old phrase a hard nut to crack "
End quote

Up to this point we have mostly seen hard nut to crack in print, though I did find occasional usage of tough. Moving later in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, there was a huge spike in usage of both variations. The next two are just a few years apart but help show different ways in which the phrase is used.

First, let’s look at The Roanoke daily times, November 09, 1895, out of Roanoke, Virginia.
A Puzzle That May Give a Leisure MInd Something to Think Of.
I have found the following interesting problem in an old notebook, writes Sir Walter Besant. I have no recollection at all of its origin. Perhaps everybody knows it. Perhaps everybody does not. Those who do not will find it, I think, unless they bring algebra to bear upon it, rather a tough nut to crack.
End quote

The January 02, 1898 edition of The San Francisco call out of San Francisco, California features a story titled Made Millions in a Decade which tells the rags-to-riches story of Barney Barnato. This is one small snippet early in his ambitious pursuits,
Arrived at the diamond fields, young Isaacs took the name previously adopted by his brother Harry, and was henceforth known to the world as Barney Barnato. In these young days he dealt in anything which brought grist to the mill, from wool, feathers, mealies and garden vegetables to diamonds. The Dutch farmers soon found they had a tough nut to, crack in the new arrival.
End quote

Next we have the May 09, 1916, NOON EDITION of The day book out of Chicago, Illinois in which the phrase is in the title of an article about a well-known individual.
Here’s Hard Nut to Crack: How Far Did Buffalo Bill Ride?

End quote

The last item I want to share before we move to our modern phrases is a comic strip in the June 11, 1939 edition of the Evening Star out of Washington, D.C. The comic Mutt and Jeff by Bud Fisher includes multiple panes for the strip titled - Gosh! Emma’s a Hard Nut to Crack - 9 of the 12 frames show Emma’s dad trying to keep her safe by baby-proofing all of the furniture and things only to have her grab the retractable blinds and pull herself all the way up to the top then plunk back down. She giggles with a tee hee at the end and with a shrug of his shoulders, he says,
I give up
End quote

Alright, we’re ready for our modern uses, right after we say thank you to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
This episode is sponsored by our amazing Patrons on Patreon. And the cool thing about Patreon is it is 100% free to join the Bunny Trails community!

We have new things every weekday on the feeds, including a conversation about what everyone is reading, early access to the show, patron’s only polls, and our behind the scenes video which always includes a little about our week before the show and a cool feature after the show.

We’ve got some other pretty cool stuff, too, like Original Digital Artwork once a month, made by Shauna, and awesome name recognition like Pat Rowe gets every episode. And our top spot is currently occupied by the amazing Mary Halsig Lopez.

You can join the Bunny Trails community for free at bunnytrailspod on Patreon.


Our “what everyone is reading” has expanded to be all forms of entertainment. Join us every Monday for our weekly conversation!

Modern Uses

The song A Hard Nut to Crack is featured on the album Tell It Like It Is from artist Aaron Neville. It was originally released in 1966. Here are some of the lyrics,

I play the game of the modern romeo but never in my life did I see
A woman as square as a pool table and twice as green
I gave you all of my money and all of my loving too
But now you're goin' around just a telling everybody that I made a fool of you
Girl I love you so, why I love you I just don't know
I ask the man from up above, help me to save your love
I want you
You're a hard nut to crack
You take a strong man and break his back
I don't know but I've been told, next to you my life's been cold
You're a demon, girl, you know you're outta sight
End quote

Reggae Artist Dennis Brown also had a related song on his 1994 album Vision Of The Reggae King. The song is titled Tuff Nut. This song has a classic, chill Reggae vibe. Throughout the song, the line, “I’m a tough nut to crack” is repeated. There are many stories about Dennis Brown online - that he was well-respected by Bob Marley - that he is considered the Crown Prince of Reggae Music - that he paved the way for Reggae’s broadened popularity in the US - and other stories, some of which would be impossible to confirm. I enjoy listening to his music and that’s all that really matters to me.

Up next, we have the 2006 book A Tough Nut to Crack by Tom Birdseye. Here is an editorial review from Krista Hutley at Booklist

City girl Cassie has never met her grandfather, but when he's injured in an accident, she's sent to help out at his Kentucky farm. Cassie adapts well to the simple country life, even after suffering an attack by a neighbor's crazed turkey. But things become more complicated when she decides to get to the bottom of a long-running dispute between her father and grandfather. This slice-of-life story is both sweet and funny, and Birdseye's detailed setting and strong characters make the familiar setup fresh. Cassie is a regular kid who reacts to the feud with a mixture of empathy and impatience, and her determination to fix the problem is both appropriately naive and well intentioned. The outcome is contrived and a bit sentimental (a storm that threatens the farm brings the family together), but this is, nonetheless, a feel-good read.
End quote
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

He’s a tough nut to crack is a single-pane comic by Wayno from February 2016. The comic depicts two characters: A skeletal grim reaper stands in the hall outside an open door. An anthropomorphized peanut wearing gloves, black and white saddle shoes, a top hat and a bowtie. He also wears a monocle and carries a cane as he stands in the open doorway with a concerned look on his face.

A Hard Nut To Crack is book #2 of the series Boomer's Tales by Christine Isley-Farmer published in 2021. The cover features a dog - possibly a spaniel - and two squirrels running down the sidewalk of a neighborhood. One of the squirrels runs along the top of a fence. Here is an overview,
An upset Robbie shows up on the doorstep of the home of his friends, Chloe, Boomer, and Nana Weathers. His dog, Hoppy, disappeared from his backyard. When Hoppy hasn't returned by the next day, family and friends spring into action. Boomer makes friends with two squirrels in a squirrel network who offer to help with the search. Will the piling-up clues lead to a reunion for Hoppy and Robbie?
End quote

A Tough Nut to Crack is a work of art by Chris Cammarata. It is a painting, described as Deeply Layered Acrylic on Canvas. It’s a very bold and bright, colorful portrait. There are various elements interspersed such as flowers and geometric shapes but still you can see the lines of the subjects features. It’s an intriguing piece.

Wrap up:
The phrase "tough nut to crack" has this subtle charm to it, you know? It's like describing a challenge without making it sound insurmountable. There's a certain satisfaction in facing something difficult but not impossible, kind of like a puzzle waiting to be solved. In a way, the phrase is optimistic - suggesting that, with effort, even the toughest obstacles can be overcome. I appreciate the phrase for describing individuals whose complexity invites curiosity rather than frustration, portraying them not as distant or off-putting but instead implying wonder or intrigue.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included,
reach out to us on Patreon, or comment on our website


It’s patron poll time!

Recently we asked our Patrons their favorite actors to play Superman.

Here were the options we included:

Christopher Reeve (Superman Movies 1978 - 1987)
Henry Cavill (Superman Movies 2013 - 2021)
George Reeves (Superman Movie and TV series 1951 - 1958)
Tom Welling (Smallville 2001 - 2011)
Dean Cain (Lois and Clark 1993 - 1997)
Bud Collyer (The Adventures of Superman Radio 1940 - 1951, 1966 - 1970)
Tyler Hoechlin (Supergirl 2016 - 2021, Superman and Lois 2021 - Current)

The winner by a large margin is Christopher Reeve. This may say something about the age of our Patrons, or it may just speak to how iconic he was in that role as the age of blockbuster movies were coming into their own.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.

No comments:

Post a Comment