Green’s Dictionary of Slang

tough adj.

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

1. [late 19C+] unfair, ‘mean’, difficult.

2. [20C+] (orig. US) resolute, vigorously uncompromising, severe.

3. [20C+] (orig. US) aggressive, menacing.

4. [1920s+] unfortunate, pertaining to hard luck; usu. as that’s tough [backform. f. tough luck ].

5. [1930s] bad, depressed.

6. [1930s+] (US black/campus) admirable, excellent; also as adv. [on bad = good model].

7. [1950s–90s] of clothes or their wearer, fashionable [on bad = good model].

8. [1960s+] attractive, of objects or people [on bad = good model].

In compounds

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

1. [1910s+] a thug, a violent, lawless person.

2. [2000+] as above, used affectionately.

3. [1920s–40s] (US gang) a young woman who associates with gang members.

4. [1960s] a challenging proposition, a problem.

tough boy (n.)

[1920s+] a thug, a violent, lawless person.

tough break (n.)

an instance of bad luck.

tough cat (n.)

[1950s+] (US black) a man who is a successful womanizer.

tough cookie (n.) (also hard cookie) [cookie n.1 (2)]

[1950s+] (US) a survivor, an emotionally, or physically, strong person.

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]

[20C+] physically close dancing, emphasizing (and offering an opportunity for) sexual intimacy.

tough egg (n.) (also hard egg) [senses 2 and 3 above + play on hard-boiled adj.]

1. [1910s+] a thug, a violent person.

2. [1920s] an uncompromising individual.

tough fit (n.)

[1950s–70s] (US black) a well-cut suit or other garment.

tough guy

see separate entries.

tough luck (n.)

[late 19C+] bad luck; esp. as excl. tough luck!

tough nut

see separate entries.

tough shit

see separate entries.

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

[1920s+] (US) a problematic, demanding situation; hard times.

tough stuff (n.)

1. [1950s] bad luck.

2. [1970s–80s] (US black) anything appealing or pleasing in the realms of sex or drugs.

tough takkie (n.) (also tough tackie) [fig. use of takkie n.]

[1910s+] (S.Afr.) hard luck.

tough ’un (n.)

1. [late 19C] a very great lie.

2. [20C+] an aggressive person.

In phrases

bit tough, a (adj.)

[late 19C+] excessive, extreme.

tough as shoe-leather (adj.) (also ...as a biled owl, …as boiled owl, ...as fencing wire, …as leather, ...as old boots, …as sole leather)

[mid-19C+] used of one who is considered ‘hard’ or ‘tough’.

tough on

[late 19C+] (orig. US) hostile towards, making life hard for someone.

In exclamations

tough beans!

[1960s+] (US) bad luck (not that I care).

tough noogies! [fig. use of noogie n.]

[1970s+] (US) (that’s) bad luck!

tough shit!

see separate entry.