Green’s Dictionary of Slang

tough adj.

[SE tough, capable of great physical or moral endurance]

1. unfair, ‘mean’, difficult.

K. Olson Music and Musket (1981) 104: Looking at his mutilated wrists [...] said ‘G--d----d tough, ain’t it?’.
[US]H. Green Actors’ Boarding House (1906) 43: Seems tough for me to bust up now.
[US]G. Bronson-Howard Enemy to Society 149: It’s pretty tough when a lot of wise ones have to take their orders from a simp like him.
[US]J. Black You Can’t Win (2000) 34: Lay away from it [i.e. gambling], kid. It’s a tough racket.
[US](con. 1919) Dos Passos Nineteen Nineteen in USA (1966) 711: Pretty tough but if he ain’t got a service record how can we make out his discharge.
[US](con. 1944) N. Mailer Naked and Dead 551: ‘Everybody knows you, Willie.’ ‘Yeah, ain’t it tough?’.
[UK]M. Amis London Fields 5: It’s tough at the top, and it’s tough at the bottom, too.
[UK]J. Cameron It Was An Accident 85: I had to walk home. Got to be tough.

2. (orig. US) resolute, vigorously uncompromising, severe.

[US]G.P. Burnham Memoirs of the US Secret Service 349: Old Johnny Hart was ‘pumped’ and preached to vigorously, all night long, by the Colonel; but he would not squeal on the engravers. He was a tough old coon, this Johnny Hart!
[US]H.E. Hamblen On Many Seas 398: He was a tough cuss, and we both had quite a lively time pounding and kicking him to get the bag away.
[US]H. Green Actors’ Boarding House (1906) 61: Pugnose was a gun fighter and a tough proposition in a rough-and-tumble.
[US]M. Glass Abe And Mawruss 38: What could you expect from a couple of tough propositions like that?
[US]J. Black You Can’t Win (2000) 138: We’ve got two tough raps [...] In the first place a hypo ain’t supposed to be found within a block of police headquarters [...] In the second place, a hypo ain’t allowed to leave Chinatown.
[US](con. 1920s) J.T. Farrell Young Manhood in Studs Lonigan (1936) 247: Zip Malloy stood with arms folded, his tough mug intent.
[Aus]K. Tennant Battlers 24: There are only two kinds of sergeants in the mid-west: the ‘soft’ variety, who will listen to a man’s tale of woe and let him stay in a town more than a fortnight, and the ‘tough’ variety, whose chief joy is to ‘hunt’ bagmen, swagmen, sundowners, hoboes, or whatever their local appellation may be.
[UK]J. Osborne World of Paul Slickey Act I: You boys are so tough in this racket!
[UK]Wodehouse Much Obliged, Jeeves 154: In L.P. Runkle she had picked a tough customer to try to freeze.
[US]T. Philbin Under Cover 229: That Spagnoli, he’s a tough fucker. He’ll make ’em talk.
[UK]Indep. on Sun. 10 Oct. 11: Politicians who glibly advocate these ‘tough’ policies as the panacea for allaying public fears about crime in the community.
[US]S. King Dreamcatcher 15: ‘I’m a tough sell,’ she says [...] ‘but I guess you’re on.’.

3. (orig. US) aggressive, menacing.

[US]C.G. Leland ‘The First Edition of Breitmann’ in Hans Breitmann in Church 129: De row vas rough und tough.
Mrs F. Leslie Calif. n.p.: I don’t know much about flying through the air, but I reckon I can show you as strange and tough a sight if you want to see, if you like to risk it, for the ladies.
[US]N.Y. Herald 1 Apr. 9/6: A young man with a very ‘tough’ air threw himself in the chair.
[US]Ade Artie (1963) 19: Some o’ them was dead tough and the others was hams.
[US]Flynt & Walton Powers That Prey 11: If my town’s tough it’s you hoosiers that come down here an’ turn yourselves loose an’ make it so.
[US]C. Connors Bowery Life [ebook] He handed me er tuff look—it couldn't hev been worse if I wuz wun uv dem strong-arm guys wot wuz after his super.
[UK]Wodehouse Psmith in the City (1993) 56: Kenningford, S.E., is undoubtedly by way of being a tough sort of place.
[US]H.C. Witwer Fighting Blood 32: The tough-looking baby suddenly grabs me by the shoulder and gives me a push.
[US](con. 1920s) J.T. Farrell Young Manhood in Studs Lonigan (1936) 262: His kid brother was just like he’d been, and plenty tough.
[US]N. Davis ‘Don’t Give Your Right Name’ in Goulart (1967) 5: Lots of guys get tough if they catch us.
[Aus]D. Niland Shiralee 128: What are you getting tough about?
[US]E. De Roo Big Rumble 41: We might find him in some tough pool room.
[UK]Wodehouse Much Obliged, Jeeves 65: Ginger no doubt had a special posse of tough supporters, talking and spitting out of the side of their mouths.
[UK]A-Team Storybook 20: You sayin’ we’re not tough enough?

4. unfortunate, pertaining to hard luck; usu. as that’s tough [backform. f. tough luck ].

implied in tough break
[US](con. 1920s) J.T. Farrell Young Manhood in Studs Lonigan (1936) 28: ‘That’s tough,’ Studs said.
[US]H. Simmons Corner Boy 93: ‘That slug clipped off half a lung’ [...] ‘Tough,’ Scar said.
[US]H. Ellison ‘Gentleman Junkie’ in Gentleman Junkie 24: ‘I need a fix, now! I’ve got pain, Nancy.’ [...] ‘Tough, pops.’.
[UK]Wodehouse Much Obliged, Jeeves 81: Tough on you, but we all have our cross to bear.
[UK]D. Widgery Some Lives! 132: ‘Don’t like them silly puffers,’ she says [...] ‘Well tough because you’ve got to use them.’.

5. bad, depressed.

[Can]R. Service ‘Grin’ in Songs of a Sourdough 29: Sink to sleep at midnight, and although you’re feeling tough, – Yet grin.
[US]D. Runyon ‘The Old Doll’s House’ in Runyon on Broadway (1954) 67: These old-time memories seem to make Miss Abigail Ardsley feel very tough [...] she starts to weep.

6. (US black/campus) admirable, excellent; also as adv. [on bad = good model].

[US]Robert Johnson ‘Little Queen of Spades’ [lyrics] But she got a way of trimmin’ down, hoo fair brown, and I mean it’s most too tough.
[US]H. Simmons Corner Boy 143: ‘Sophisticated Lady’ turned out to be real tough [...] ‘Dig this crazy jam.’.
[US]Rigney & Smith Real Bohemia xx: If the quality is high (pure, almost unadulterated), the drug is ‘boss,’ ‘tough,’ ‘dynamite.’.
[US]Wisconsin State Jrnl 17 Jan. 1-2: [T]he male students describe a pretty girl as ‘tough’ or a ‘tough head’.
[US]A. Young Snakes (1971) 56: I know they got some tough sides [i.e. records] round here.
[US]G. Tate ‘Atomic Dog’ in Flyboy in the Buttermilk (1992) 33: I saw a Japanese chick singing, sounded like Sarah Vaughan. This girl couldn’t speak English too tough, but when she sang she had Sarah Vaughan down.
[US]Eble Campus Sl. Spring.
[US]Eble Campus Sl. Dec.

7. of clothes or their wearer, fashionable [on bad = good model].

[US] ‘Mexicana Rose’ in D. Wepman et al. Life (1976) 37: My man Smitty was also pressed / And looked real tough. I must confess.
[US]J. Rechy City of Night 129: I bought me these here boots [...] Tough, huh?
[US]H.E. Roberts Third Ear n.p.: tough, tough enough, ‘tuft’ adj. […] 2. stylish.
[US]Eble Campus Sl. Apr. 6: tough – unusual, interesting, admirable. ‘Man, that is a tough sweater.’.

8. attractive, of objects or people [on bad = good model].

[US]P. Crump Burn, Killer, Burn! 102: Ain’t she tough? A real looker, right?
[US]Eble Campus Sl. Fall 5: tough – good-looking, appealing, sexy; either male or female.
[US]P. Munro Sl. U. 195: tough nice-looking (usually, of clothing or accessories).
[US]N. McCall Makes Me Wanna Holler (1995) 124: I sat there, tripping and gawking at the tough furniture.

In compounds

tough baby (n.) [baby n. (7)]

1. a thug, a violent, lawless person.

[US]Van Loan ‘Scrap Iron’ in Taking the Count 217: Some tough baby, me!
[US]Thurman & Rapp Harlem in Coll. Writings (2003) 322: A couple of tough babies begins scrappin’ an’ de neighbors called de police.
[US]W. Mahoney ‘The Ruse in Cocaine Alley’ in Und. Detective Mar. [Internet] They ain’t cookies — they are tough babies.
[US]I. Wolfert Tucker’s People (1944) 342: Tucker was one tough damn baby.
[US]J. Thompson ‘The Cellini Chalice’ in Fireworks (1988) 59: She was one of those tough babies. All the toughies had a soft streak.
[UK]Wodehouse Much Obliged, Jeeves 114: A tough baby?

2. as above, used affectionately.

[UK]Observer Mag. 4 Jan. 17: His mother [...] gave him the nickname Spike because, she later told him, he was ‘a tough baby.’.

3. (US gang) a young woman who associates with gang members.

[US]S. Ornitz Haunch Paunch and Jowl 57: Nice girls dreaded the gang [...] But the gang had its female followers, who were admiringly called ‘tough babies.’.
[US]Monteleone Criminal Sl. (rev. edn).

4. a challenging proposition, a problem.

[US]J. Thompson Texas by the Tail (1994) 10: He’d run a boiler room all day, bossing a bunch of phone men and closing the tough babies himself.
tough boy (n.)

a thug, a violent, lawless person.

[US]H.C. Witwer Classics in Sl. 73: This 28-Round Murphy’s real name is Launcelot Fishbaum, and he is no cake eater, but one tough boy.
[US]R. Chandler High Window 119: ‘In my business,’ he said, ‘tough boys come a dime a dozen. And would-be tough boys come a nickel a gross.’.
[US]R.L. Bellem ‘Focus on Death’ Hollywood Detective Jan. [Internet] Send some tough boys into the hills and make the grab.
[US]R. Chandler Playback 179: I was a real tough boy tonight.
tough break (n.)

an instance of bad luck.

[US]H.C. Witwer Fighting Blood 273: You think you just got a tough break [...] But you’re mistaken. We got the tough break right here for you. Listen —.
T.R. Gowenlock Soldiers of Darkness 250: Tears were in his eyes, and we heard him repeating: ‘It’s a tough break, old boy — it’s a tough break.’.
[US]L. Wolf Voices from the Love Generation 119: If you’re screwed, you’re screwed ... tough break.
[US]H. Wolitzer Ending 88: ‘Tough break.’ I placed a basket of candy at every place setting [...] ‘Tough break,’ he said again.
J. Davis Clay Yeager’s Redemption 130: ‘Tough break,’ the deputy said sympathetically. ... ‘Real tough break,’ he said.
M. Joens Blood Reins 209: A flat tire is a tough break. Not getting a promotion is a tough break.
tough cat (n.)

(US black) a man who is a successful womanizer.

[US]H.E. Roberts Third Ear n.p.: tough cat n. a man who has his own individual style of clothes, a way with women, and a very ‘long rap.’.
tough cookie (n.) (also hard cookie) [cookie n.1 (2)]

(US) a survivor, an emotionally, or physically, strong person.

[US]W.L. Gresham Nightmare Alley (1947) 283: McGraw’s a hard cookie.
[US]Heggen & Logan Mister Roberts Ii i: The Admiral’s a pretty tough cookie when he’s mad.
[US]E. Dundy Dud Avocado (1960) 70: She was [...] almost a man’s man, really, with all her hearty camaraderie. A tough cookie.
[Aus]W. Dick Bunch of Ratbags 212: He was a small bloke, but a very tough cookie for his size.
[UK]P. Theroux Family Arsenal 29: Look at that – Weech is a tough cookie.
[US]A. Maupin More Tales of the City (1984) 28: She was a tough old cookie.
[US](con. early 1950s) J. Ellroy L.A. Confidential 156: Don’t be such a tough cookie, huh? I’m on your side.
[UK]Indep. on Sun. Rev. 7 May 70: Johnny is a much tougher cookie than I am.
[UK]N. ‘Razor’ Smith Raiders 149: The Turk was one tough cookie who would rather die than reveal his secret.
[UK]T. Black Artefacts of the Dead [ebook] It’ll be OK [...] Clare’s a tough cookie.
tough dancing (n.) [the term and style originated in the brothels of San Francisco’s Barbary Coast n. and spread into the mainstream dancehalls, or their less salubrious counterparts]

physically close dancing, emphasizing (and offering an opportunity for) sexual intimacy.

K. Peiss Cheap Amusements 114: Tough dancing not only permitted phyical contact, it celebrated it. Indeed the essence of tough dancing was its suggestion of sexual intercourse.
tough egg (n.) (also hard egg) [senses 2 and 3 above + play on hard-boiled adj.]

1. a thug, a violent person.

[UK]A.N. Depew Gunner Depew 260: The prisoners there got to be pretty tough eggs [...] They thought nothing of picking a fight with a sentry.
[US]C. Coe Me – Gangster 5: I guess he was a tough old egg. He used to come home drunk and once kicked me in the stomach.
[US]J. Dixon Free To Love 25: The only way to treat a gang of hard eggs like that is to throw the fear of God into them.
[US]H.L. Court ‘Live Bait’ in Spicy Detective Stories Nov. [Internet] You came to this paper with the reputation of being a hardboiled reporter — a tough egg. I hired you on that assumption.
[UK]R. Westerby Wide Boys Never Work (1938) 206: He was thin, but a tough egg all the same.
[US]H. Miller Sexus (1969) 22: He was capable of shoving a guy against a wall and pummeling his brains out. He was the sort of tough egg who can sing falsetto.
[UK]Wodehouse Mating Season 94: The tough eggs at the back of the back row will rush the stage and lynch me.
[US]C. Himes Crazy Kill 31: No matter how tough an egg he was, if they kept him in there long enough he would hatch out a pigeon.
[Aus]W. Dick Bunch of Ratbags 155: I began to know these two tough eggs. They liked me because I was so thin and frail standing beside them with their enormous bodies.
[UK]Guardian G2 27 June 12: Nick Ross, who is cast rather against type as a tough egg.

2. an uncompromising individual.

[US]J. Callahan Man’s Grim Justice 59: The Warden [...] was the toughest egg that I ever met.
[US]M. Levin Reporter 88: One, brave, breaks the silence. It’s hard egg Sorrocco of the Chronicle.
tough guy

see separate entries.

tough luck (n.)

bad luck; esp. as excl. tough luck!

[US]Atlanta Constitution 19 Nov. 2: The new slang term from the South, ‘bull-dozing,’ which means intimidation, is having tough luck in the newspapers, the proof-readers and type-settters not having mastered it yet.
[US]Lantern (N.O.) 27 Oct. 6: Oh, Lord, what tough luck!
G.H. Brennan Bill Truetell 272: You’ve been against a lot of tough luck.
[Aus]C.J. Dennis ‘A Spring Song’ in Songs of a Sentimental Bloke 15: Tough luck! I s’pose it’s ’ow a man is built.
[UK]Wodehouse Carry on, Jeeves 150: Tough luck. No wonder you’ve lost your morale.
[US]T. Gordon Born to Be (1975) 147: I am born to have tough luck with the ladies.
[US]G.W. Burnett Iron Man 62: Tough luck, old kid [...] You’ll make it yet.
[US]O. Strange Sudden Takes the Trail 26: Tough luck, Jake.
[UK]P. Pringle Boy’s Book of Cricket 28: ‘Tough luck,’ sympathised Tony.
[US]R. Chandler Long Good-Bye 221: It’s your tough luck you were here, Marlowe. What was the cheque for?
[US]Baker et al. CUSS.
[UK]Wodehouse Much Obliged, Jeeves 20: A less tactful man [...] might have gone on to add ‘Oh, tough luck!’.
[US]E. Droge Patrolman 23: Normally that’s just tough luck and you wait for the next class.
[UK]Reeves & Mortimer Vic Reeves Big Night Out n.p.: Tough luck! Try your stick.
[UK]Guardian 25 Jan. 18: If that means letting in Rhodri or Ken, tough luck.
tough nut

see separate entries.

tough shit

see separate entries.

tough sledding (n.) (also hard sledding, heavy sledding)

(US) a problematic, demanding situation; hard times.

[US]O.O. McIntyre New York Day by Day 12 Jan. [synd. col.] The slump in the moving picture industry is going to make it hard sledding for many authors this winter.
[US](con. 1920s) J.T. Farrell Judgement Day in Studs Lonigan (1936) 716: It’s going to be tough sledding.
[US](con. 1920s) Dos Passos Big Money in USA (1966) 801: It was heavy sledding because Merrit was [...] trying to size up Charley.
[US]W. Brown Monkey On My Back (1954) 183: Charlie had taken the cure. It was tough sledding, though, when he got out.
[US]J. Stahl Permanent Midnight 69: The pay’s swell, but it’s tough sledding for the hard-core delusional intent on maintaining the facade of free will.
[US]J. Stahl I, Fatty 220: I’m generally inclined to compassion [...] but in Virginia’s case I found it tough sledding.
tough takkie (n.) (also tough tackie) [fig. use of takkie n.]

(S.Afr.) hard luck.

[SA]cited in J. & W. Branford Dict. S. Afr. Eng. (1991).
D.B. Paterson JJ’s Secret 106: If you get claustrophobic or simply fed up, it will be ‘tough tackie’, to use one of JJ’s expressions.
posting at www.moneyweb.co.za 15 Sept. [Internet] Thirdly, your employees were probably in SA illegally anyway, so tough takkie for you if you employed them!
tough turkey (n.) [? euph. tough titty under titty n.]

(US) bad luck.

[US]T.A. Dorgan in Zwilling TAD Lex. (1993) 84: Do you remember how they panned Billy Nolan, manager of Bat Nelson, when Billy made Joe Gans weigh in at 133 at Goldfield, Nevada, wearing shoes, gloves, and trunks? Tough turkey, wasn’t it.
D. Runyon in El Paso Herald 4 Dec. 11/3: Of course, it is tough turkey on a fellow like Petey, who does not have much amusement except pushing over tall ones.
tough ’un (n.)

1. a very great lie.

[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 4 July 9/1: Wouldn’t the Hadmiral do you for to-night, or, if not, the Bishop? They say (this with a wink) he can pitch a tough ’un.

2. an aggressive person.

[Aus]Bulletin (Sydney) 6 Oct. 24/1: The success of Otto Cribb has caused brother Arthur to take to the bruising game; he’ll shape up against ‘Rollo’ at the Golden Gate [...] next week. Rollo’s [...] a tough ’un who’ll want licking.

In phrases

bit tough, a (adj.)

excessive, extreme.

Sportsman (Melbourne) 30 Nov. 5/4: He was the victim simply of misfortune, and it was a bit tough on him to punish him.
[Aus]‘Miles Franklin’ My Brilliant Career 214: ‘It was a bit tough being cleared out from all the old ways, but if I have you to stand by me it will be a great start’.
[Aus]B.C. Doyle Two Chain Road in Wkly Times (Melbourne) 20 Aug. 5/2: ‘She would think you’d only been fooling, and so would everyone else, and that’s a bit tough for a girl’.
[Aus]Punch (Melbourne) 27 Jan. 6/3: ‘Come, come, Colonel,’ said one of the group, doubtfully, ‘isn’t that a bit tough?’.
Land (Sydney) 26 May. 12/3: He hadn’t had a holiday, or been further from his home than Tullibigeal for 24 years. ‘That sounds a bit tough’.
Queensland Times (Brisbane) 15 Nov. 3/3: ‘How long this traffic flow will be diverted is not known [...] ’ Mr. Hill commented. Cr. J. Barbour: It’s a bit tough, isn’t it?
tough as shoe-leather (adj.) (also ...as a biled owl, …as boiled owl, ...as fencing wire, …as leather, ...as old boots, …as sole leather)

used of one who is considered ‘hard’ or ‘tough’.

J.W. Carlyle letter in Letters: a New Sel. (1949) 127: The ‘cold fowl’ was a lukewarm one, and as tough as leather .
[US]Eclectic Mag. XVI 427: Lisa labored ten hours a-day, with a voice as tough as shoe-leather, and hoarse and uncertain; but on she went.
Literary World XXVII 477: The only person depicted, old or young, whose heart is not as dry as desert sand, and whose moral sense as tough as shoe leather.
[US]G.D. Chase ‘Cape Cod Dialect – Addenda’ in DN III:v 422: tough as a biled owl, adj. phr. Used of a person of strong constitution.
[US]D.I. Young ‘Chuck Away’ in Botkin Folk-Say 310: Tough as boiled owl.
[US]P.G. Brewster ‘Folk “Sayings” From Indiana’ in AS XIV:4 261: Another’s strength elicits such admiring phrases as ‘tough as sole leather.’.
C. Mann He’s in the Engineers Now 82: Here was no doubt about it, these engineers were as tough as shoe leather, and healthy as young wildcats itching for a battle.
[NZ]G. Slatter Gun in My Hand 48: He was tough as old boots.
[Aus]S. Gore Holy Smoke 9: Only a little bloke, picked before he was ripe, but game as Ned Kelly and tough as fencing wire.
in B.N. Smith Jane Hicks Gentry 26: Some folks say that Madison County folks are hard as nails, rough as pig iron, balky as mules, and tough as shoe leather.
Rochester & Kiley Honor Bound 515: Day described him as ‘a tall man with a large, rawboned frame and a ruggedly handsome face’ and with a resistance posture as ‘tough as shoe leather’.
tough on

(orig. US) hostile towards, making life hard for someone.

C.L. Canfield Diary of a Forty-Niner (1906) 170: The crowd agreed it was pretty tough on Jim and proceeded to help him forget it by ordering drinks all round.
[US]Stock Grower and Farmer 8 Mar. 4/2: The recent blizzard [...] was pretty tough on range cattle [OED].
[US]‘Hugh McHugh’ Get Next 46: Which was tough on Peaches, but good for the bungalow.
[US]D. Hammett ‘Death on Pine Street’ in Nightmare Town (2001) 201: It’s tough on Stan, but women and children first.
[US](con. 1920s) J.T. Farrell Judgement Day in Studs Lonigan (1936) 520: Life was tough on mothers.
[US]D. Runyon Runyon à la Carte 61: The D.A. is tough on parties who assist guys he is looking for.
[US]J. Jones From Here to Eternity (1998) 194: Its goin to sure be tough on poor old Preem.
[US]P. Thomas Down These Mean Streets (1970) 123: It must be tough on you Negroes.
[Aus]B. Humphries Traveller’s Tool 128: You might think I’m being a bit tough on Gwen but there’s nothing on this page I wouldn’t say to her, face to face.
[UK]Indep. on Sun. 27 Feb. 10: Heads told to be tough on gangs.

In exclamations

tough beans!

(US) bad luck (not that I care).

NewsObserver.com 20 Jul. [Internet] They didn’t think they should have to be bothered with any second-guessing from Congress or the American people. If they had to engage in some hoodwinkery so they could forge ahead with their grand designs, well, tough beans.
tough noogies! [fig. use of noogie n.]

(US) (that’s) bad luck!

[US]R. Price Breaks 220: ‘She’s got the hots for you.’ ‘Tough noogies.’.
[US]Wash. Post 28 Nov. [Internet] Having hand-counted almost 500,000 ballots, the county was facing a 5 p.m. deadline with 800 to 1,000 ballots still outstanding. It faxed the ever-accommodating Katherine Harris and asked for a bit more time. Tough noogies, she replied.
tough shit!

see separate entry.