Hardscrabble time

I came across the word “hardscrabble” recently and I realised that I have heard it a few times coming out of the US media. It is starting to have a resonance in Australia with cost of living increases biting hard (May 2024).

Hardscrabble is a word that has strong usage in the US characterised to describe the life that in Australia we would associate with “battlers”. The figurative meaning is “marked by poverty, hardship, or struggle” and the literal meaning is “having a stony or rocky soil that is difficult to cultivate”.

Both meanings reflect the idea of overcoming a tough or unfavourable situation.

Where does hardscrabble come from?

The word “hardscrabble” is a compound of hard and scrabble, which means “to scratch or scrape together with difficulty”. Scrabble is derived from the Middle Dutch word “schrabbelen” which means “to scratch or claw”.

The word history of hardscrabble is not well documented and there are several conflicting versions of its first usage. However, most accounts suggest its origins in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the earliest known use of the word hardscrabble is in 1784. In the journals of Lewis and Clark (1804) it was given as the name of a prairie. Lewis and Clark were early US “explorers” of the north-western US after the Louisiana purchase—when the US bought the state of Louisiana from the French in 1803. It is noted in 1813 as a placename in New York state. By the first half of the 19th century, Hardscrabble was used as a placename for a remote town or region where life was difficult.

How is it a metaphor?

Hardscrabble soon acquired a metaphorical sense, as a synonym for hardship, poverty, or struggle. This sense was influenced by the historical and social context of the early 19th century, when many Americans faced challenges such as westward expansion, frontier wars, economic crises, and political conflicts.

The word hardscrabble is often used to describe the lives and conditions of pioneer settlers, farmers, and immigrants, who had to work hard and endure many difficulties to survive and prosper.

What is the significance of hardscrabble today?

According to Mission Australia over 3.3 million Australians were living in poverty in 2022 (including 761,000 children), facing significant disadvantages and challenges in their day-to-day lives. Australian Bureau of Statistics for 2019–20 More than one in eight people (13.4 per cent) and one in six children (16.6per cent) lived below the poverty line after taking account of their housing costs.

Hardscrabble might find its way into the Australian vocabulary very soon.