What Does Tough as Nails Mean?

Tough as Nails Meaning

Definition: Strong and stubborn or determined.

This can also sometimes mean rarely ill.

Origin of Tough as Nails

This expression is somewhat ambiguous since a person could use it in either a positive or negative way.

When used as a compliment, it means that a person can handle any problem and keep enduring. When used as an insult, it can mean that a person is unfeeling, cold, or harsh.

Early publications with this expression date back to at least the 1860s. The synonymous expression hard as nails came first, in the early 1800s. For over a hundred years hard as nails was more common. However, modern usage is roughly equal for each idiom.

It is unclear whether the word nails in the expression refers to the metal nails used in building or the body part at the end of the finger. Both ways would seem to make sense.

Examples of Tough as Nails

tough as nails originIn this example, two sisters are discussing a teacher that they used to have in high school.

Amy: Do you remember Ms. Kelly?

Kimberly: Of course I do! Who could forget her? She was tough as nails. She used to make us write full essays with perfect citations every month!

Amy: I know! And those daily vocabulary quizzes were so stressful.

Kimberly: She was so strict as well. She wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense.

Amy: At the time I resented her tough demeanor, but looking back at it now, I can honestly credit her with my high test scores on the English part of the college entrance exam.

what does hard as nails meanIn the second example, two friends are at the gym.

Keira: I just hired a personal trainer! He should be here at any moment to get me started on my workout.

Rory: Are you serious? Was that really necessary? Can’t you workout on your own?

Keira: Um, I could try. But in the past, I always give up too easily. I never push myself. That’s why I hired someone who is tough as nails. This guy is so intense that I know I’ll push myself to my limits!

More Examples

This example is about a victim of a mass shooting in Las Vegas.

  • Stacee, 50, worked as a hairdresser. Al Etcheber called her a loving wife and great mother who was “tough as nails and just the salt of the earth.” –LA Times

This excerpt is about a famous basketball player.

  • Magic entered at 6-9 and at least 230, carrying a national championship trophy and tough as nails. –LA Times


The phrase tough as nails can mean strong, dedicated, and enduring or harsh and unfeeling.