A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

How did some crime fiction come to be described as "hard-boiled"?

October 2, 2007

Dear Straight Dope:

What is the source of the term "hard-boiled" as used in referring to a genre of crime novels? Thanks.

SDStaff Gfactor replies:

Honestly, Terry, this one's not really that tricky to work out using an ordinary dictionary and some common sense. But sure, we can walk through it.

The figurative use of hard-boiled probably dates back to as early as 1885, when the phrase "hard-boiled egg" seems to have been used as an epithet for someone who didn't readily part with money. 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.

In a 1937 article in American Speech, etymologist Peter Tamony cites an older piece from the same magazine that flatly credits New York pool-hall proprietor Jack Doyle with coining the phrase "hard-boiled egg" (to mean a player who shoots conservatively and is careful with his money) and writer Damon Runyon and cartoonist T.A. "Tad" Dorgan with popularizing it. (Dorgan is familiar to etymology buffs for the role attributed to him in the ascendance of hot dog as a synonym for frankfurter.)

Tamony, though, thinks the story's somewhat more involved than that. Through a series of examples he traces the evolution of the phrase's meaning from "cheap" or "petty," 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.

And by 1919, hard-boiled meant tough, and often violent. In that year U.S. army lieutenant Frank "Hardboiled" Smith was among several men court-martialed for their brutality in running a stockade outside Paris where American servicemen who'd been caught AWOL were detained; Smith and the others verbally abused and beat the prisoners and stole their property. Hardboiled Smith made the news again when he was beaten "nearly to death" after his arrival at Fort Jay, in New York City, to serve his sentence; when his wife filed for divorce, citing "brutal treatment"; and when he was paroled (.pdf) four months early for "good behavior."

By this point the connection between well-done eggs and no-nonsense personalities was cemented: a 1924 movie comedy about a would-be tough guy was called A Ten-Minute Egg, and author P.G. Wodehouse was fond of describing a particularly forbidding character as a "twenty-minute egg."

As a characteristic of literature, hard-boiledness is typically traced back to Carroll John Daly's 1922 mystery story "The False Burton Combs." It was published in the Black Mask, the magazine credited with popularizing hard-boiled fiction. Because this story didn't technically involve a detective – the protagonist is just a tough guy for hire – many critics identify the first hard-boiled detective story as Daly's "Three Gun Terry," which ran in the issue of May 15, 1923. Daly also wrote what are considered the first hard-boiled novels, White Circle and Snarl of the Beast (both 1927). By 1926 there are newspaper references to a play, The Handy Man, whose characters include a "hard-boiled detective." And Dashiell Hammett's seminal crime novel Red Harvest was advertised in the February 17, 1929 New York Times as a "detective story that is different" featuring "a detective as ruthless, as hard-boiled as the criminals he pursues." It wasn't too long before the term came to describe the kind of fiction Hammett excelled at writing – the kind about tough, cynical men and women in a corrupt and violent world.

References

Tamony, Peter, "The Origin of Hard-Boiled," American Speech 12(4): 258-261 (1937)

Nolan, William, ed., The Black Mask Boys (1985)

Shibuck, Charles, introduction to Snarl of the Beast by Carroll John Daly (Gregg Press ed., 1981)

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