There’s a word in this paragraph, which appeared in a piece in The Times at the weekend about Katherine Ryan and female comics (paywall), that really doesn’t belong.
“Were the women as funny as the men at the Fringe this year? It’s a question that was made redundant by many of the female acts on show. It’s not helpful to over-generalise, but the women have a knack of giving emotional ballast to their big belly laughs. They tell stories about their often hardscrabble lives, and make serious points about the way of the world, without losing their audiences.”
If you didn’t experience the sound of a piano ending a ten-storey suicide leap in the middle of that paragraph, it’s this one:
It’s entirely possible that some of the women telling jokes at Edinburgh this year had a tough time getting there. (Although this was also the year that featured more offspring of famous people than ever before).
Did they really have to try and extract food from the arid prarie with their own hands?
Did they have to load their miserable mattresses and rocking chairs onto a rusty old truck and abandon their farms to the bank?
So maybe “hardscrabble” isn’t reserved for the exclusive use of John Steinbeck, and isn’t even limited to times of economic catastrophe.
Dictionaries have it meaning simply “involving hard work and struggle”, in which case it may well be appropriate to the Edinburgh women.
But it is also unmistakably American, rural, extreme in its implication of poverty, and suggestive of a waking life spent clawing at the uncooperative earth, which most likely does not fully encapsulate the early years of an Edinburgh fringe hopeful.
When words creep in where they don’t belong it’s the word that suffers and loses its impact.
Carry on down this road and before long “hardscrabble” will be applied to someone who didn’t fit in immediately on arrival at Eton, say, or who was driven to destroy their crockery by a parent’s refusal to fund a start up.
So to everyone tempted to employ this word, unless your subject’s life was genuinely hard and involved real scrabbling, “hardscrabble” is not available for your sentence.