Magazine May 4, 2020, Issue

Letters

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Hardly Literal

I enjoyed Bryan Garner’s article “Sex and the Singular Pronoun” (February 10). It reminded me of the word hardly. I’ve always had trouble accepting that the word is used to mean “a very small amount,” or “to a very small degree,” or “not at all.” I’ve wondered if it has been used that way for so long that it is accepted. It seems that it actually would mean the opposite — “a large amount or degree,” as if to mean “in a hard way.” I would guess that the proper thing to say would actually be “not hardly” instead. An example would be “The weather will not hardly affect my decision to drive,” meaning that the decision will not be affected in a hard way, or “The weather will hardly affect my decision,” meaning that the weather will affect the decision in a hard way. I think most would say it is a double negative in that example, but I’m not sure if it is historically accurate.

I would be interested in Mr. Garner’s opinion on the use of this word. Thanks.

James D. Edwards
Ledbetter, Texas

Bryan Garner responds: The use of hardly in the sense “not quite” or “scarcely” has an interesting history. The word acquired this nonliteral meaning in the 1500s and hasn’t shed it.

Originally, in the 1200s, the word meant “with great force or exertion; vigorously” (as in to strike hardly). Today, in this sense, we use hard adverbially. During that same century, the word began to be used in metaphorical senses, as an equivalent of boldly or daringly (as in speak hardly thy mind ). By the early 1500s, the word had taken on the meaning “with great hardship; uneasily” (as in money hardly acquired ). From there it became almost synonymous with barely, and then, by the mid 1500s, it was extended to mean “not quite.” Today, the meaning is even more extreme, verging on “not at all” (as in his artwork is hardly skillful ).

This progression in senses would have been hardly predictable. It just goes to show that the life of the language has not been logic; it has been experience.

As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the expression not hardly is considered a vulgarism.

 

Meaningful Messages

I thoroughly enjoyed Graham Hillard’s article about messages, comments, and notes found in old books. One of the joys of acquiring a used book is finding these messages. It is a connection with history and with the previous owner of the book. It is even more poignant depending on the age of the book — and the message.

It can also be somewhat sad. I’m currently reading a used, 1960s edition of William Shirer’s opus The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. There is a message inside: “To Daddy, Father’s Day, June 18, 1961. Love, Judy.” With an additional message below, “Happy, happy father’s day to my own personal, wonderful dictator! Love, Judy.”

No idea who Judy and her father were, but this is a very personal (and funny) message. I assume this book was donated the same way many are, by many of us getting rid of clutter, but it carried a very special message between a daughter and a father almost 60 years ago.

Derek Douglas
Alexandria, Va.

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