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What Does "Hard up" Mean?

Jim B.
Jim B.

"Hard up" is an English idiom that is used to describe someone or a group of people who are in a dire financial situation. Such people are lacking the funds necessary to complete some objective or are simply lacking money in general compared with others. Another way that the phrase "hard up" is used is as a way of describing people who lack something that they need. Like many idioms, the origin of this phrase dates back to nautical times, when it was used to describe the position of a boat being steered away from windy conditions.

On certain occasions, a person who is speaking English may decide to choose a word or short phrase that is used for color or expressiveness. These words and phrases, which are known as idioms, may have accepted meanings which differ greatly from the actual definitions of the words they contain. Instead, these idioms gain their meanings over time depending on the way that they are used in the culture. One of these idioms is the phrase "hard up."

In colloquial usage, the term "hard up" refers to a state of poverty.
In colloquial usage, the term "hard up" refers to a state of poverty.

The most common usage of this phrase is as a means of denoting poverty. Someone who is described in this manner is often lacking the money he or she needs. This phrase can be used to describe people who are perpetually in a state of poverty, or it can be used for those people who might only be temporarily in that situation. As an example, someone might say, "Ever since I went to college, I've been hard up trying to pay back all of my loans."

Someone who is "hard up" may not have adequate shelter.
Someone who is "hard up" may not have adequate shelter.

In certain occasions, the meaning of this idiomatic expression may be stretched to the point where it can denote any situation where someone lacks something. Whereas certain people are lacking money, other people have other necessities in life that they may be lacking. The phrase, when used in this manner, can also be used to describe a temporary need that is not being filled. For example, consider the sentence, "It's a shame that they are so hard up for volunteers, since they are a wonderful charitable organization."

Many idioms come from the time when sailing ships were the primary mode of transportation over long distances. When strong winds buffeted such a ship, the helm was turned in a position known as hard up windward. The modern meaning comes from the fact that people who are poor are dealing with a financial storm.

Discussion Comments


@Chmander - While that's partially true, you also have to look at it from both perspectives. Don't expect all homeless people to be perverted and mentally ill. However, on the other hand, don't expect all of them to be friendly either. In fact, they might even expect you to treat them poorly due to how they're constantly ignored by others and harassed by the police.


Though helping the homeless is a wonderful thing, you always have to make sure to be careful. I'm not trying to discourage you when I say this, but just because they're homeless, doesn't mean that they're the nicest people. Some of them have serious issues.

@Viranty - I've actually done a similar event to yours, where we distribute snacks and lunches. However, with some of them being older, many of the homeless people have made some very perverted comments to my lady friends. Sometimes, you have to remember to be careful around them, as some can even have mental illnesses.


Though it's very unfortunate that so many people (especially in Chicago) are homeless, I'm glad that there's something we can do to help. At my college, there's an event every Sunday called Sunday Snacks. In this meeting, many students go to downtown Chicago and distribute snacks to the homeless, which usually consists of turkey sandwiches, potato chips, and juice boxes. It's really heartbreaking, but it's also very hopeful. You really see a side to them that you normally don't see. I think that one of the reasons why they're so grateful is because they usually don't receive any kind of attention. When they do, it usually involves being harassed by the police for "trespassing".


@Chmander - I've lived in Chicago for most of my life, and I can definitely see where you're coming from. Every day, I see homeless people who are constantly ignored by those who are higher in society. It's very heartbreaking, but it's a part of reality. In fact, it's almost like they're invisible. It even reminds of a cartoon I watched a while ago called Static Shock.

Though a fictional show, it covers a lot of issues that usually aren't touched upon in cartoons. In one episode, a little girl says that people tend to look right through you when you're homeless. Afterwards, the main character admits to being guilty of that. Even I'll admit that I've been guilty of doing that. I guess most of us don't realize what we have until it's gone.


Speaking of poverty, has anyone here ever seen a movie called the Pursuit of Happiness? Based on a true story, it follows the adventures of Will Smith and his son, who soon find themselves facing poverty after going bankrupt. Though it's not one of my favorite movies, I feel that it portrayed poverty in a very realistic and heartbreaking way. Late in the movie, there's a scene where Will Smith and his son are standing outside, waiting in line for soup. The score used is very powerful, and the lighting is very effective. This is just my opinion, but I feel that often, it's hard to sympathize with those who are homeless or who are in poverty. It's not something you understand until you experience it yourself.


I have a friend who was a starving musician back in the 60s. He often found himself hard up for food, and he would take what he could get.

He told me that he often visited the dumpsters behind restaurants. He dined on people's leftovers. He said that the pizza really wasn't bad at all, as long as it hadn't been there too long.

Thinking of all the germs he scavenged through and all the diseases he could have gotten makes me cringe. I'm just glad he survived those times without contracting E. coli or salmonella.


Reading this article makes me think of my trip to the lake last month. All of the public restrooms in the park were closed, and I was hard up for a place to urinate.

Something about being around water makes me need to go more often. Also, I had been drinking a lot of bottled water because of the heat.

The park did not provide port-a-potties like they used to have when the bathrooms were closed, since funding had been cut. I had to find a secluded place in the woods and make sure that no park rangers could see me.

I hated to do it, but when you are really hard up for a bathroom, you will resort to using any area you can. After the first time, it got easier. I think I did it four times that day!


@StarJo – My boyfriend also started associating with dangerous people, but he was hard up for money instead of friends. He lost his job and could no longer afford his rent, so he started selling stolen items to make cash.

I offered to let him come live with me until he got back on his feet, but he was so stubborn about being independent that he chose a life of crime over reliance on me. He ended up in jail because of this.

I understand the panic that comes with lack of money, and I think that being extremely hard up makes our judgment cloudy. We never really know what we will do in that situation until we are actually in it.


My dad used to use this expression when referring to his brother's need for companionship. He didn't approve of his brother's friends, and he always said that he must be really hard up for company to hang out with the people he chose to associate with.

His brother started out clean, but he got in with the wrong crowd. Before long, he wound up on drugs and abusing alcohol. My dad hated to see him like that, and he confronted him by telling him that he must be hard up for a sense of belonging to resort to that lifestyle.

I think that made my uncle see his situation from another perspective. Sometimes, the tough love embodied in this phrase is just what is needed, because he turned his life around after that conversation.

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    • In colloquial usage, the term "hard up" refers to a state of poverty.
      By: JackF
      In colloquial usage, the term "hard up" refers to a state of poverty.
    • Someone who is "hard up" may not have adequate shelter.
      By: Andrea Izzotti
      Someone who is "hard up" may not have adequate shelter.