William Safire, “On Language: Hard Times” (New York Times Magazine, Feb. 22, 2009).
I passed that clue on to Ben Zimmer, executive producer of www.visualthesaurus.com and a longtime capo of the Phrasedick Brigade, with the suggestion that it may have to do with the populist President Andrew Jackson’s assault on Philadelphia’s Second Bank of the United States. Jackson liked “hard” money — silver and gold, money you could bite, none of that soft, paper stuff being printed by private banks — and was furious at the way rich merchants controlled much of the nation’s money supply. As he turned the White House over to his vice president and acolyte, Martin Van Buren, the bottom fell out of the economy, inflation raged and the first Great Depression lasted five years.
“The financial crisis of 1837 was indeed a high-water mark for hard times usage,” Zimmer reports. “I checked Gale’s 19th Century U.S. newspapers database, and there are a whopping 375 articles from 1837 mentioning ‘hard times,’ 50 of them using the phrase in the headline of the article.” (Times may change, but headline writers never let go of a short grabber.) “The Washington Globe reported on April 29, 1837, ‘Every paper we open contains some lamentable account of the pressure in the money market, and loud cries of hard times.’ That’s when the Panic of 1837 began in earnest. In May, banks suspended the payment of hard money, and small change disappeared from circulation, leading to the production of ‘Hard Times’ tokens.” (That accounts for the NOT ONE CENT on my token, to distinguish a coin issued by a private bank from a government-issued cent.)
While he was at it — Netymologists are compulsive diggers — Zimmer provided a citation in the Early English Books Online database from a 1598 poem, “The Complaint of Poetry for the Death of Liberality,” by Richard Barnfield. Its plaintive question is echoed these days by journalists induced to take buyouts as well as literary lights dimmed by darkling publishers: “But who can live with words, in these hard times?”
Read the rest here.