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From difficulty, from Middle English difficultee, 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 (earveth, difficult, hard), from Old English earfoþe (difficult, laborious, full of hardship), cognate to German Arbeit (work, toil, job, task, performance, effort).



difficult (comparative difficulter or more difficult, superlative difficultest or most difficult)

  1. Hard, not easy, requiring much effort.
    • Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)
      There is not the strength or courage left me to venture into the wide, strange, and difficult world, alone.
    • 2008, Daniel Goleman, Destructive Emotions: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama, ISBN 0307483762, 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: Other 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.
    (Can we find and add a quotation of Sir W. Temple to this entry?)

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