Hardship, Hard Liquor

by Julie Sheehan


Tare the people for whom each day dawns like a champagne cocktail, and the

Julie Sheehan’s three poetry collections are Bar Book: Poems & Otherwise, Orient Point and Thaw. Her honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, NYFA Fellowship, and the Barnard Women Poets Prize. She teaches in and directs the MFA program in creative writing at Stony Brook Southampton.

On Libations:  “I yearn to make my own mead using Pliny the Elder's recipe: 1 part old honey to 3 parts water; set in the sun for the 40 days after the rising of the Dog-star.”


people for whom it does not. I am in the latter group, perceiving hardships everywhere I go, alongside my more extreme brethren, the suicides, the alcoholics, the clinically depressed, and, in a mild but important case, my own son. Hardship is not to be wished for, and so I must claim some small hope with which to dilute the gloom of such a world view, especially on behalf of that son, who deserves a good reason to suffer another seventy years of life.

“Why is it so hard?” he asks me a few days into third grade. “Why is everything so hard?”

In fifth grade, on a worksheet called “Getting to Know You,” he answers the question “What do you worry about most?” with “That I will be overworked.”

The word hardship has a few interesting features. First, there’s that suffix, “ship,” introducing an ocean-going vessel to carry the concept, as if it would sink to the mucky depths if left to its own survival instincts. Secondly, and in spite of that sturdy ship, hardship seems to have been separated from the tactile qualities of “hard” at its birth and given over to the subjective, emotional or metaphysical realm. That is, it was never meant to describe actual qualities of matter, the physical property of being solid and impenetrable, the way “hardness” does. It has always described a human response to being, with the word “hard” acting metaphorically. Circumstances in one’s life—that although one is only eleven, one is nonetheless overworked, for example—might seem akin to a boatload of marble or cast iron or industrial slag or whatever else makes your sclerometer beep, but they aren’t really. Hardship, in Bob Dylan’s words, is “all inside yer head.”

Hard in the tactile sense, however, goes way back, back to Old English, with the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation from the vintage year of 971. The 10th Century was all about the physical properties of matter, if the language can be believed. In Beowulf, characters exist by virtue of their stuff: kings are not potentates but “ring-bearers” or, better yet, “gift givers.” Warriers are “shoulderers of the spear.” Conditions are too hard (in the metaphysical sense) for anyone to get metaphysical. At least according to the texts they left behind, people focused on what they could see, hear, taste, smell or touch. For their second citation, the OED editors give us a bit of Beowulf: “hond ond heard sweord,” or, in contemporary English, “hand and hard sword.” I love how close “hand” and “hard” are in that line, with their identical opening and closing sounds, and with only that one syllable between them, for the hand is what senses the iron, either from holding the sword or being bloodied by it.

But hard in the sense of “not easy,” in the sense of “overworked,” in the sense my son used it, didn’t creep  into the language until 1340. The 14th Century, while it brought us Chaucer, also featured a decadent, by then nearly pointless warrior class of knights who got into stupid wars or held elaborate banquets and sucked the peasant class dry to pay for their indulgence. A merchant class was forming, and between the disgusted shopkeepers and the besieged serfs, they pried the adjective hard away from nouns like ploughshare or stone and began to apply it to the comparatively disadvantaged state they found themselves in. It would only be a matter of time before this new sense of hardship bred revolution, the Age of Enlightenment, and “hard liquor,” a metaphor that, tactilely speaking, makes no sense at all.

The year 1789 saw the earliest use of hard in the colloquial sense of “gets  you drunk”—it was first applied to cider—and this usage originated here in the good ole USA. The OED lists it in the third part of its definition, covering hard “in various transferred senses.” Hard means “intoxicating, spirituous, ‘strong’.” Leave it to us colloquial Americans to get it wrong two ways: not only is liquor not “hard” in the sense of “unyielding to the touch,” but hard liquor isn’t necessarily more intoxicating than beer or wine or “soft,” girly liqueurs like Chambord. You can get quite drunk on Chambord if you consume enough of it, not that I’ve tried. (Okay, once.) It’s how hard you’re drinking (hard as in definition IV, “Intense, strenuous, violent”) that determines your drunkeness. And so here, also, the hardness of liquor is “all inside yer head,” a misperception of physical matter, a “transferred sense” indeed, transferring blame for the drunkenness from the drinker to the drink.

Empty metaphors like “hard liquor” give metaphor a bad name, hence its reputation as an artful lie, an evasion of responsibility, a way to weasel, weasel being “to render (a word, phrase, etc.) ambiguous or equivocal,” to suck the meaning right out of a word the way a weasel is thought to suck the contents from an egg. Metaphor grants license, but the freedom is limited: in order to make a good metaphor, you can’t lie about the sensory properties of the world.  “Hard liquor,” then, is a bad metaphor, an empty eggshell, because liquids aren’t hard. (Weasels don’t suck eggs either, I’m sorry to say.) “Hardship” as a metaphor keeps closer to its roots in the tactile world. Those 14th-Century peasants had a lot of sensory evidence for their coinage: hunger, weary muscles, banged-up hands. From their immediate sensory experience springs our belatedly aching sense that the world is a pretty tough place to be, and so I return to the worldview I share with my son. How can I redeem this worldview which, far from shaking, I find persuasively affirmed every time I turn on NPR? What keeps me from hitting the hard liquor pretty hard even as I write this? When my son asks, “Why is everything so hard?” what, other than, “Here, have some scotch,” should I reply?

To make matters worse, there’s a persistent linkage of hardship with the act of giving birth, labor in its maternal sense, I suppose. The grimmest OED citation in the whole hardship entry is from 1676, under the first definition, “The quality of being hard to bear; hardness; rigour; severity; painful difficulty”:

Lady Latimer was delivered with much hardship on Wednesday, the child dead.

Nuts. The child here seems to have gotten the better end of the deal, as I try to imagine Lady Latimer’s grief, but “better never to have been born” is not something a mother can say to her son once having brought him successfully into the world, loved him beyond reason, nurtured him through the devastations of overwork and the lack of a Playstation game box and the injustice of having to go to church, through the time he punched a girl in the stomach, the time he bonked a kid on the school bus with a water bottle, the time his best friend dumped him for not being cool enough, the time he opened all the Christmas presents under the tree, including mine, while I was outside shoveling the walk, and the time his father and I sat him down to tell him we were getting divorced and all he said was a little, soft “oh”—no, while he was delivered with much hardship, and has continued to bear them, I am very glad indeed he was born alive, and my selfish fierce love for him trumps any wish he may have to the contrary.
        And so I turn to my solace, the dictionary, flipping past the hs to a synonym for hard liquor, spirits. This word denotes the category of alcoholic beverages that have been distilled—gin, vodka, rum, whiskey, rye, the ones we think of so falsely as “hard.” And it is from the process by which they are made, that of distillation, that the word spirits has come to be applied to liquor, for distillation is a method of extracting a desirable liquid by separating it from its pollutants or dilutions, and the relationship between pure Kentucky bourbon and corn mash is a great metaphor for its antecedent, the relationship between vitality—spirit in its ancient sense—and our mortal bodies, which both contain and pollute it.

Working backwards, etymologically, spirits as today’s beverage category was coined in the 17th Century. Under the OED’s definition, “A liquid of the nature of an essence or extract from some substance, esp. one obtained by distillation; a solution in alcohol of some essential or volatile principle,” we find Ben Jonson first using the word in his play, The Alchemist, in 1612. Since alchemy aimed to get at a refined substance through grosser materials, and alchemists going back to the 14th Century had identified four such substances that they called spirits, his coinage makes perfect sense. His immediate precursor is William Shakespeare, who used spirit as an alcohol-soaked verb in his 1600 play, Henry V:  “And shall our quick blood spirited with wine / Seeme frosty?” The question is overwhelmingly rhetorical, with “quick,” “blood,” “spirited,” and “wine” holding a tyrannical majority over “frosty,” the lone dissenter, doomed to melt under all that energetic heat.

Of course, we all know where the etymological trail of spirits is going to end: the Bible. Indeed, the OED begins its entry with broad language about how the English word is “derived from passages in the Vulgate, in which spiritus is employed to render Greek πνεῦμα  and Hebrew rūaḥ. The translation of these words by spirit (or one of its variant forms) is common to all versions of the Bible from Wyclif onwards.” The oldest, best sense of spirit is, “The animating or vital principle in man (and animals); that which gives life to the physical organism, in contrast to its purely material elements; the breath of life.” Breath of life. Ah. I think I’ll take one now. Incidentally, that form of brandy (a spirit) known as eau de vie, “water of life,” also picks up and puns on the spirit of spirit as translated into “breath of life.”

If I choose the word spirits over hard liquor, I not only conjure the majesty of “the Bible from Wyclif onwards,” I also emphasize the process of distillation by which it’s made. I privilege that process over its outcome, the “intense, strenuous, violent” intoxication it can produce, if consumed unwisely. With my choice, I suggest that we have some part in shaping our miseries. I was raised to be exceptional, and that explains part of why life seems irredeemably hard to me. When good is not enough, when I criticize myself for not writing enough, for not writing well enough, for not socializing enough, for not having a wide enough circle of true friends, for not being fit, for not reading enough, for not collecting art, for not practicing the piano, and for not creating the kind of fairy tale childhood—or even the kind of okay childhood—that would prevent my kid from wondering why life is so hard, then bad enough follows as naturally as a Republican mid-term landslide follows an ineffectual Obama administration. But if I emphasize the process by which writing, friends, fitness, art collections and good childhoods are forged, I have a fighting chance. Each day is, if not a champagne cocktail, at least another shot at distilling what’s gold in the dross of existence. I have a spirit, an enduring vitality, that is in the process of being until the day I die. And I have a choice over the words I use, whereas I don’t necessarily have full or even partial control over the outcomes of each breath of life, particularly since they involve other people—entire systems of people—and such ne’er do wells as money, biology, and the weather.

By now you’ve gathered that dictionary-diving is not just a hobby for such as I. It’s a survival technique. Etymology, the process of a word becoming itself over time, saves me down to my Vulgate. The dictionary affirms my shaky belief that how we express ourselves shapes what we perceive. It offers the hope that, however confirmed our worldviews seem, we can change them. Choose a synonym and you direct your destiny, my son, my offspring, my sapling, my minor. Life is hard? Here, have a dictionary.