Behind the Dictionary

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Core Values: The Evolution of "Hardcore" Usage

"Work that core!" That was the phrase my soun Doug and his friends learned to associate with the assistant marching-band director this summer, as they went to their first high-school band camp. Planks, push-ups, upside-down bicycles... they did an hour or more of calisthenics a day getting their core muscles in shape for the marching to come.

As it happens, the word core has been getting a workout in English for the past 80 years or so, with the development of the adjective hardcore and its derivatives. What started as a way of describing the persistently unemployed has expanded into the domains of politics, music, and video games, not to mention general usage.

The earliest attestation for hardcore in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1936. Back then it was a noun (or more precisely, a two-word "nominal phrase"), and it was used to refer to people who were not just unemployed, but unemployed no matter how narrowly you defined unemployment: the "hard core of unemployed". The phrase also appears six years earlier in some Irish parliamentary proceedings from 1930 (found via Google Books), and is still in use today, usually for people who have been out of work for a year or more.

By 1939, this kind of unemployment had come to be referred to as hardcore unemployment, with hardcore now functioning as an attributive noun. Likewise, by 1943, the people in this "hard core" could be referred to as the hardcore unemployed.

Between 1950 and 1990, hardcore goes on to modify other words, including prisoners, cynics, Republicans, terrorists, [pro-segregation] States, heroin addicts, Nixonians, and science fiction, according to attestations from both the OED and the Corpus of Historical American English.

Once a noun has come to modify other nouns, as hardcore did, it may start to gain other properties of adjectives. For example, it may start to appear as a complement to the verb be, or allow modification by very, too, or that. You can find all of these things happening with hardcore, in examples like:

  • That's actually not very hardcore. (title of a Facebook page)
  • Is Common Core Too Hard-Core? (an article about educational standards)
  • We are still that hardcore. (from a blog post about the amazing skills of modern programmers) 

Another sign that a word is an adjective instead of a noun is the use suffixes such as -ness to turn it back into a for-sure noun. This happens with hardcore, too; for example, a commenter on the above blog post takes issue with "the notion of hardcoreness in general."

The most adjective-like adjectives — the "hard core" of adjectives, if you will — have comparative and superlative forms. Hardcore passes this test, too. Like many two-syllable adjectives, it has comparatives and superlatives beginning with more or most. The earliest attestation of more hardcore I've found is from 1984, but the more interesting ones come in recent online articles on topics like "Why The Wizard of Oz is more hardcore than The Wire," and "You Should Know Ballerinas Are More Hardcore Than You." The superlative most hardcore came a couple of decades earlier. This example comes from the 1965 Reader's Digest Almanac:

The suspension of literacy tests and other devices in automatic trigger areas will be lifted only after five years, by which time it is assumed that voting rights will be firmly entrenched in even the most hardcore centers of discrimination.

Surprisingly, hardcore also has comparatives and superlatives ending in -er and -est. They're not very common, though, and only arrived in the past decade. One example is from this blog post explaining how Scrooge McDuck is "hardcorer" than you. Another is from a site that I don't know how to describe, but the title of one page includes the phrase "the hard corest boy in town."

As if the standard ways of making comparatives and superlatives weren't enough, hardcore's still-identifiable adjective+noun structure allows it a third way of forming them: harder- and hardest-core! The title of that same earlier blog post about hardcore programmers is "Harder Core than Thou," which is also happens to be the name of a screamo group. Furthermore, I have learned that the popular sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer was trained as an Israeli sniper, and is thus "much harder-core than you thought."

Hardcore has become suitable for referring to intense, envelope-pushing versions of anything. Along with hardcore political parties and pornography, there are also hardcore (video) gamers, and especially, hardcore versions of music genres — as the OED puts it, "harsh, aggressive, or extreme versions of various types of popular music." In fact, hardcore has been so influential in this regard that its -core component has broken free to become a libfix. In the "Among the New Words" column in the Summer 2012 issue of American Speech, Ben Zimmer and Charles Carson catalog no fewer than six genres of music ending with -core, not including the OED's earliest example of speedcore from 1985, or others that you can find out there, such as emocore.

Although -core stands in for "hardcore" in music, in the realm of video games, it just means the degree of intensity of a game or gamer. But because of the strong association of softcore with porn, those in the video-game business use the term casual games to refer to smartphone time-killers like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. In the past couple of years, a third gradation has even appeared, so that between hardcore and casual games, you have your mid-core games.

From phrase to attributive noun to adjective to libfix, for almost a century hardcore has been slimming down, gaining power, and overall doing things hardcore. And I haven't even talked about its use as an adverb!

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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.