hard-nosed, soft-nosed, dum-dum

Someone who is hard-nosed is stubborn, obstinate, or unyielding, tough, uncompromising. This slang sense has been around since the late 1920s. The OED records a 1927 theater program glossing the term, indicating that the usage was not completely familiar. And in 1928 the journal American Speech records it as carnival slang ("Contributor’s Column,” American Speech, Vol. 3, No. 3, February 1928, 253–57). But where does the term come from? What does an impenetrable proboscis have to do with being stubborn or unyielding?

The answer is that the term comes from the world of the military and munitions. It started out as a retronym for a type of bullet. In the late nineteenth century, ammunition makers started producing bullets that deformed upon impact, increasing the damage caused. The most famous of these soft-nosed projectiles were produced at the British arsenal in Dum-Dum, India.

The OED has a citation for dum-dum from The Westminster Gazette, 14 December 1897, 7/3:

The piper hero, Findlater, was wounded in the ankle with a Dum Dum bullet.

The earliest citation for the adjective soft-nosed that I can find comes a few months later in “The Dum-Dum Bullet,” The Times of India, 18 March 1898, 4:

We do not often find ourselves in sympathy with Mr. Dillon, but the prospect of a general use of soft-nosed bullets bids fair to bring about such a terrible multiplication of the horrors of war that for once we are inclined to think that his protest deserves consideration.

Another early citation, but one that places the adjective in quotation marks, indicating that the editors did not expect the word to be familiar, is from “The Dum-Dum Bullet at Short Ranges,” The Times of India, 1 June 1898, 4:

The War Office have agreed upon a new pattern bullet whose merits certainly deserve to be weighed carefully with those of the Dum-Dum, and an enquiry of this kind might also embrace the question how far “soft-nosed” bullets with a great “set up” are fit weapons for modern civilised warfare.

The retronym hard-nosed appears the next year in “Joubert and Lyddite,” The Times of India, 6 November 1899, 4:

...ineffective as hard-nosed small calibre projectiles may be against the trans-frontier Pathan or the Soudan Dervish, they possess quite sufficient stopping power to place any trained soldier hors de combat.

This citation, written during the First World War, uses both hard-nosed and soft-nosed, “‘Deformative’ Bullets. Dum-Dum and Other Varieties,” The Times of India, 10 September 1915, 10:

The original deformative bullets were manufactured at Dum-Dum, and in some way or other the town became associated in the public mind with soft-nosed bullets only, and the fact that principally hard-nosed bullets were turned out at Dum-Dum was overlooked.

The adjectives were also applied to larger projectiles, “The Tragedy of Jutland and Lord Jellicoe’s Naval Mission,” The Globe (Toronto), 3 October 1919, 6:

The British ships fired comparatively soft-nosed conical shells that would not penetrate the extra-nickel-hardened German armor-plate, while the German hard-nosed, nickel-plated, or molybdenite conical, square, or convex-pointed shells, equipped with delay-action fuse, would, even at an oblique angle, penetrate to the vitals of the British ships.

Like many terms, the word seems to have migrated from soldier slang into the general vocabulary as a result of the war, with the general slang sense appearing about ten years after the war was over.

There is another, older meaning of hard-nosed that is unrelated to the above. It refers to the inability to smell. This sense appears in the 1889 Century Dictionary:

Hard-nosed, in hunting, having little or no sense of smell: said of dogs.

But I’ve found a much older citation, “Natural History Society,” The Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, 18 October 1856, 668:

The next meeting takes place at the elegant mansion of Mr. Fleming, Love Grove, about the 12th of December, when there will be Full Moon, Worlee Hill close by and beyond the region of the smells, affording first rate ground for excursionists. Hard nosed geologists will find the most beautiful sections of the Island presents near the mouth of the Town Drain.

The region of Worlee Hill was where the sewers of Bombay drained, so one had to be hard-nosed indeed to venture there.

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