The Meaning of Tough: What It Is and How To Use It

Do you know the definition of tough? This article will provide you with all of the information you need on the word tough, including its definition, etymology, usage, example sentences, and more!

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What does the word tough mean?

According to Collins English Dictionary and the American Heritage Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, the word tough is an adjective that means rough, violent, strong, difficult, strict, or firm. Many things can be tough, including a tough steak, a difficult situation, a hardship, a tough problem, a tough mountaineer, a tough place with a lot of crime, a tough person or tough character like a tough gangster, a tough break, street toughs, a tough employer, a tough life, a tough negotiator, a baffling problem, a tough cut of meat, a restless night, thought street gangs, a knotty problem, or the rugged conditions of frontier life. Some of these are idioms, some of these are used literally, and some figuratively.

Tough can be used in the following phrases:

  •  tough-minded
  •  tough crowd
  •  tough toodles
  •  toughly
  •  tough case
  •  tough cookie
  •  tough titty
  •  supertough
  •  tough luck
  •  hang tough
  •  toughy
  •  toughness
  •  toughish
  •  tough row to hoe
  •  do it tough
  •  toughen
  •  ultratough
  •  tough shit
  •  tough love
  •  tough call
  •  toughie
  •  tough tuchus
  •  when the going gets tough, the tough get going
  •  tough nut to crack

Many different languages contain translations for the word tough. You may notice that some of the translations in the below list look and  sound a lot like the word tough. These are called cognates, which are words and phrases that have a similar look, sound, and meaning across languages. These are often formed when two words have the same root or language of origin. This list of translations of the word tough is provided by Word Sense.

  •  Greek: σκληρός‎ (masc.)
  •  Italian: duro‎, resistente‎
  •  Friulian: dûr‎
  •  Persian: سفت‎ (seft), چغر‎ (čeqer)
  •  Hungarian: rágós‎
  •  Dutch: taai‎
  •  Russian: жёсткий‎
  •  Georgian: გამძლე‎
  •  Finnish: sitkeä‎
  •  Polish: wytrzymały‎, odporny‎
  •  Portuguese: duro‎
  •  German: zäh‎
  •  Spanish: resistente‎
  •  Scottish Gaelic: fulangach‎, tapaidh‎
  •  Pashto: کلک‎ (klak)
  •  Irish: righin‎

What is the origin of the word tough?

According to Etymonline, the word tough (adj.) has been used since the Middle English and Old English tōh. This word can be compared to the Old High German zāhi, German zäh, Old Norse tā, and the Dutch taai. This word comes from the Proto-Germanic tanhu. This word has meant different things from the year 1200 when it meant strong and powerful, 1300 to mean not tender or fragile, and early 14c to describe meat that is difficult to chew. One can add the suffix ly to form the word toughly (adv.) and one can add the suffixes er and est to make the superlatives of the word tough. 

How can the word tough be used in a sentence?

There are many different ways that the word tough can be used in a sentence in the English language. Using words in a sentence is a great way to memorize their definitions. You can also try making flashcards or a quiz to test your knowledge of the definitions of different English language words. Try using this new word of the day in a sentence today! Below are several examples of the word tough to help get you started.

The tough woman endured much suffering and adversity, but it gave her great endurance. She made it through tough street gangs and many a different problematic situation.

The old boots were made of a tough weather fabric. Once one broke through the physical discomfort and softened the leather, the shows were perfect.

The tough athlete took up the sport of boxing, which took great mental demands and physical demands of stamina.

The child completed the tough recipe and served the cake without complaint. She was a gifted baker. 

What are synonyms and antonyms of tough?

There are many different words that a person can use in place of the word tough. These are called synonyms. Learning synonyms is a great way to expand your English language vocabulary and avoid repeating yourself in spoken or written English. This list of synonyms of tough is provided by Power Thesaurus.

  •  leathery
  •  grueling
  •  firm
  •  awkward
  •  impenetrable
  •  steely
  •  serious
  •  toughie
  •  hardened
  •  tiring
  •  durable
  •  rugged
  •  robust
  •  thorny
  •  harsh
  •  baffling
  •  trying
  •  complicated
  •  burdensome
  •  vigorous
  •  difficult
  •  goon
  •  uphill
  •  adamantine
  •  rigid
  •  onerous
  •  painful
  •  rowdy
  •  solid
  •  exacting
  •  difficulty
  •  taxing
  •  problematic
  •  inflexible
  •  arduous
  •  hard
  •  stubborn
  •  brawny
  •  gangster
  •  tough guy
  •  tricky
  •  sturdy
  •  challenging
  •  well-built
  •  heavy
  •  punishing
  •  rigorous
  •  ruffian
  •  stressful
  •  hardest
  •  yobbo
  •  stalwart
  •  strapping
  •  punk
  •  demanding
  •  chewy
  •  powerful
  •  complex
  •  strong
  •  hefty
  •  unyielding
  •  hood
  •  hoodlum
  •  flinty
  •  burly
  •  hardy
  •  callous
  •  severe
  •  oppressive
  •  strenuous
  •  laborious
  •  hard-nosed
  •  thug
  •  stringy
  •  muscular
  •  toilsome
  •  stony
  •  sticky
  •  cruel
  •  fibrous
  •  tight
  •  hooligan
  •  stiff
  •  roughneck
  •  exhausting
  •  rough
  •  uncompromising
  •  bully
  •  hard-boiled
  •  stout
  •  unbending
  •  stringent
  •  formidable
  •  resilient
  •  strict
  •  bruiser
  •  unbreakable
  •  trouble
  •  stern
  •  knotty

There are also numerous different words that mean the opposite of the word tough. These opposite words are known as antonyms. Learning antonyms is another great way to expand your English language vocabulary in a quick and easy way. This list of antonyms of the word tough is also provided by Power Thesaurus. 

  •  pliable
  •  benevolent
  •  facile
  •  flimsy
  •  mushy
  •  feminine
  •  easy as pie
  •  easy
  •  ailing
  •  as easy as rolling off a log
  •  delicate
  •  unsound
  •  sentimental
  •  as easy as taking candy from a baby
  •  kindhearted
  •  lightweight
  •  soft
  •  can be done with your eyes closed
  •  kind
  •  infirm
  •  frail
  •  tender
  •  effortless
  •  cowardly
  •  as easy as shooting fish in a barrel
  •  crisp
  •  weak
  •  vulnerable
  •  cheap
  •  feeble
  •  hassle-free
  •  can be done with your eyes shut
  •  cuttable
  •  sensitive
  •  as easy as winking
  •  chewable
  •  kind-hearted
  •  royal
  •  as easy as falling off a log
  •  as simple as abc
  •  debilitated
  •  acquiescent
  •  charitable
  •  nonviolent
  •  good
  •  as sick as a dog
  •  easy as beans
  •  comfortable
  •  accepting
  •  fragile

Overall, the word tough means difficult, serious, or strong. This word is of Proto-Germanic origin.


  1. Tough definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary
  2. Tough synonyms – 3 183 Words and Phrases for Tough | Power Thesaurus 
  3. Tough antonyms – 704 Opposites of Tough | Power Thesaurus  
  4. tough: meaning, origin, translation | Word Sense 
  5. tough | Origin and meaning of tough | Online Etymology Dictionary