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From Middle English difficult (ca. 1400), a back-formation from difficultee (whence modern difficulty), from Old French difficulté, from Latin difficultas, from difficul, older form of difficilis (hard to do, difficult), from dis- + facilis (easy); see difficile. Replaced native Middle English earveþ (difficult, hard), from Old English earfoþe (difficult, laborious, full of hardship), cognate to German Arbeit (work).


  • IPA(key): /ˈdɪfɪkəlt/
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difficult (comparative more difficult, superlative most difficult)

  1. Hard, not easy, requiring much effort.
    However, the difficult weather conditions will ensure Yunnan has plenty of freshwater.
    • 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne, chapter 17, in The Scarlet Letter, a Romance, Boston, Mass.: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, →OCLC:
      There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, difficult world, alone.
    • 2008, Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, →ISBN, page 199:
      In adults, the same kind of anger has been studied in people trying to solve a very difficult math problem. Though the tough math problem is very frustrating, there is an active attempt to solve the problem and meet the goal.
    • 2013 August 3, “Boundary problems”, in The Economist, volume 408, number 8847:
      Economics is a messy discipline: too fluid to be a science, too rigorous to be an art. Perhaps it is fitting that economists’ most-used metric, gross domestic product (GDP), is a tangle too. [] But as a foundation for analysis it is highly subjective: it rests on difficult decisions about what counts as a territory, what counts as output and how to value it. Indeed, economists are still tweaking it.
  2. (often of a person, or a horse, etc) Hard to manage, uncooperative, troublesome.
    Stop being difficult and eat your broccoli—you know it's good for you.
  3. (obsolete) Unable or unwilling.
    • 1749, Henry Fielding, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling:
      “I hope, madam,” said Jones, “my charming Lady Bellaston will be as difficult to believe anything against one who is so sensible of the many obligations she hath conferred upon him.”

Usage notes[edit]

Difficult implies that considerable mental effort or physical skill is required, or that obstacles are to be overcome which call for sagacity and skill in the doer; as, a difficult task. Thus, “hard” is not always synonymous with difficult. Examples include a difficult operation in surgery and a difficult passage by an author (that is, a passage which is hard to understand).


Derived terms[edit]



difficult (third-person singular simple present difficults, present participle difficulting, simple past and past participle difficulted)

  1. (obsolete, transitive) To make difficult; to impede; to perplex.
    • August 9 1678, William Temple, letter to Joseph Williamson
      their Excellencies having desisted from their pretensions , which had difficulted the peace


Further reading[edit]