If only your left ear works, are you “listing to port”?
Dear Word Detective: I work at the Graduate School of Education at Portland State University, and I was talking with one of the Special Education professors over lunch today. The question came up, why do we use the phrase “hard of hearing”? All my life, I’ve used that phrase without ever wondering, but now it does seem strange. I wear hearing aids in both ears, and I know that hearing is hard for me, but why is it reversed? Is it just shorthand for “it’s hard for me to hear”? — A. Tasa Lehman.
Hey, “Portlandia,” right? It must be cool to have an IFC TV comedy series about where you live. I’m actually thinking of pitching a similar show set in our little town of Bump, Ohio. Of course, instead of the waiter in the local Portland restaurant explaining that the free-range chicken on the menu was named Colin and had lots of friends, we’d have Carl at Cafe Bump specifying the owner and brand of the truck (“Bob Wilson’s Chevy Silverado”) that dispatched the deer in today’s stew. And since the only guy in town who rides a bicycle rides it in the dead of winter while wearing no shirt, I think we might have to skip the whole ecological-awareness angle. I’m not making that up, by the way. Strange dude, but he always waves. Everybody here always waves.
“Hard of hearing” is indeed one of those phrases that we use every day but that suddenly seem truly strange when you stop to think about them. There isn’t any similar phrase in common usage today; we don’t say “I’m hard of walking” if we use a cane (though we might say “Walking is hard”), or “He’s hard of thinking” if someone seems a bit dim.
The short answer to the question is that we used to say such things all the time, using “hard” in the general sense of “not easily capable; having difficulty in doing something.” From the 15th century until the mid-19th century, for instance, it was common to say that an unsuccessful student was “hard to learn” (“Of slow capacitie, and hard to learn and conceive,” 1579) or that an insomniac was “hard to sleep” (“I have been very hard to sleep too, and last night I was all but sleepless,” Charles Dickens, 1858).
Our modern English word “hard” first appeared in Old English, drawn from Germanic roots, with the meaning of “not soft or fragile; resisting force or pressure,” a sense we still use when describing a rock or mattress as “hard.” One other early sense of the word was “not easy to wear out; capable of great exertion,” which led, in the 14th century, to the use of “hard” to mean “difficult to accomplish; laborious or full of obstacles,” as we say a job is “hard” today. In the 15th century, the focus of this sense of “hard” shifted from the task to be done to the person doing it, and we began to use “hard” in the sense of “having difficulty doing something” that persists in “hard of hearing” today. “Hard of hearing,” however, is the only use of that sense of “hard” still in common usage.
There have been, incidentally, some interesting synonyms for “hard of hearing” over the years. Back in the 17th century the hearing-impaired were termed simply “deafish.” In the 18th century the term “dunny” was common, “dun” here being a form of “din,” meaning loud noise, with the implication that the person’s hearing was impeded as one’s would be by a loud noise. Unfortunately, “dunny” was also used to mean “stupid,” paralleling the use of “dumb” (originally in English meaning only “unable to speak”) as an insult meaning “slow-witted.”
If there were an award for the weirdest synonym for “hard of hearing,” I’d nominate the archaic term “thick listed,” based on the obsolete English verb “to list” meaning “to hear,” which eventually produced our familiar “to listen.” The “thick” in “thick-listed” is a dialectical English usage of the common adjective “thick,” here meaning “dull, not sharp,” also found in the archaic expression “thick-sighted.”