No Hard Feelings

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   June 11, 2024

If we’re talking about hardness and softness – which we will be here – the classic example in literature is a fairy tale attributed to Hans Christian Andersen. In this story, a woman is taking refuge in a castle from a terrible storm which has ruined all her garments and left her looking very bedraggled. Nevertheless, she claims to be a Princess. All the inhabitants of the castle, including the Prince, who has been seeking a bride, are very skeptical. However, they give her a bedchamber, in which the bed happens to be piled high with mattresses.

But the Prince’s mother, the Queen, decides to make this situation into a test. At the very bottom of the bed, underneath all the mattresses, she secretly places a single pea. In the morning, the guest complains that she had a very uncomfortable night, because of something hard in her bed. This allays all doubt and proves to everyone that she must be a real Princess, because only a person with royal blood could be so sensitive.

This concept of royalty calls into question the other idea; that in order to be a great leader, you must be as hard as nails. Which, in turn, raises another question – just how hard are nails? In seeking the answer to that, you may be interested to know that there is actually a scale of hardness, developed as long ago as 1822 by a German geologist named Friedrich Mohs. How hard is Iron on the Mohs scale? Off the bat, I can tell you that what’s hardest on the Mohs Scale are Diamonds, and softest is Talc.

As it happens, there was another man with a very similar name – Frederic Mohs – who has become eminent in a very different field. He was an American surgeon, who, in 1938, developed an improved form of surgery for skin cancer – a technique now so common that I myself had it performed on one of my hands. It involves taking a small piece of the suspect area, doing a biopsy while the patient stays available in a nearby room, then, if necessary, coming back and taking more; and, if the wound still isn’t completely “clean,” repeating this process until the doctor is satisfied that all the cancerous tissue has been removed.

But let’s remember that the term “hardware” has been in use for hundreds of years to characterize merchandise made mostly of metals – and you will still find stores calling themselves hardware stores, and larger establishments with a hardware department. “Software,” however, is of much more recent origin, and is unquestionably a product of the computer age, being traceable back only as far as the 1950s. The need for such an expression arose to distinguish the tangible material objects a computer is made of, which were already called its hardware, from the programs and other forms of instruction which tell the computer what to do. (A mathematician named Paul Riquette is credited with inventing this term – but, if he hadn’t, where would we be today without company names like “Microsoft”?)

You might think that the term “software” should earlier have been applied to all the fabrics, textiles, and linens sold in their own special kind of store – but no, the term “drapery” seems to have filled that need.

But, to most of the world’s population, there are still other uses of these contrasting terms. Of course, to younger players of Baseball, there is still the important distinction between “Hardball” and “Softball.” And the term “now we’re playing Hardball” has metaphorically come to mean that now we’re getting really serious. 

But even more crucial to people everywhere who eat boiled eggs, it matters momentously whether their egg is hard-or soft-boiled. That great humorist, P. G. Wodehouse, often described a very tough, unsentimental character as a “twenty-minute egg.”

And preferred manners of eating eggs has been an important subject at least since the time of the English satirist Jonathan Swift, whose novel Gulliver’s Travels (1726) tells about the Kingdom of Lilliput, in which a struggle is going on between two factions. Their dispute arises over the question of whether a boiled egg should be eaten from the larger, wider end, or from the opposite, narrower end. The whole country is thus divided into “Big-Endians” and “Little-Endians.”

Finally, in terms of national policy, let me remind you that it was one of our most hardy presidents, Teddy Roosevelt, who popularized the motto, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.”  


You might also be interested in...