“Hard Row to Hoe” – Definition and How to Use?

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For someone coming across this phrase, it might look like an inappropriate word is being used. However, using the phrase “hard row to hoe” is not inappropriate at all. In fact, it’s been in the English language for hundreds of years now and has been used all over the literary world.

What is the meaning of “hard row to hoe”?

The phrase “Hard row to hoe” is used as an idiom to describe the difficulty of the situation where the solution requires some serious hard work. The phrase is similar to that of “a hard nut to crack”.

The reason behind the idiom is tilling the rows with a tool named “hoe”, sometimes known as “garden hoe”. Tillage is an old technique of preparing land for the new seeds to get the best results. Tilling requires hard work and consistency especially if the soil is dry. The word “hard” in an idiom refers to dry or stony soil.

Usage in Davy Crockett’s Book    

Talking of differing opinions with Chief Magistrate; once acquainted with him and whom he stood by:

“Gentlemen, I never opposed Andrew Jackson for the sake of popularity. I knew it was a hard row to hoe; but I stood up to the rack, considering it a duty I owed to the country that governed me. I had reviewed the course of other presidents and came to the conclusion that he did not of right possess any more power than those that had gone before him. When he transcended that power, I put down my foot. I knew his popularity; that he had come into place with the largest majority of anyone that had gone before him, who had opposition: but still, I did not consider this as giving him the right to do as he pleased and construe our Constitution to meet his own views.”

An Account of Col. Crockett’s Tour to the North and Down East (1835) [Page: 69, 70]

That’s what makes it beautiful!

The catchiest thing about the phrase is its rhyming nature. “Row” and “hoe” are internal rhymes in the phrase; as appeared within the same verse. Also, the use of alliteration in “hard” and “hoe” intensifies the phrase.

Idiom, coining idioms!

Being for more than two centuries in the English language, the idiom has formulated other idioms like “tough row to hoe”.  “Long row to hoe” is another magnificent idiom filled with linguistic aesthetic. 

Some unpopular constructions also appeared by borrowing synonyms of the word “tough”. Sometimes, comparative and superlative degrees of tough/long are also used to coin a new phrase.

Hoeing a road – seriously?

On December 3rd, 1842, Daily Atlas (Boston), a farmer wrote: “Truly, you have a hard road to hoe…”

Several constructions of a phrase make it vulnerable to be mistaken. A “hard road to hoe” is a misunderstanding of the original phrase. And what makes it trickier is that apparently, it looks fine to use. Another reason to fall for it is that “hard row to hoe” is part of the lyrics of a song. Listening to that specific verse of a song can make you wonder that you heard “hard road to hoe”.

Using “hard row to hoe” in sentences

The idiom can be used in the following ways.

  1. I know it’s a long row to hoe.
  2. New tax reforms are hard row to hoe.
  3. Confronting Cartels could be a tough row to hoe.

Hussain Saeed
Hussain Saeed


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