Re: Re - RARA-AVIS: Hard-Boiled

From: Sharon Villines (
Date: 10 Feb 2000

The following definitions are based on the histories of the words as given in the OED.


Sharon Villines, Butler
The MacGuffin Guide to Mystery Fiction

The word "hard-boiled" first appeared in recipes using "hard-boiled eggs." Mark Twain used it in 1886 to refer to rigid grammatical rules and by 1903, it was used to mean "hard" or "stiff "clothing such as the hat of a cowboy or the suits of traveling salesmen. By the end of WW I, it was commonly used to describe a rigid person, one who would not take a chance or relax a rule. It soon came to mean a person who was cynical, stoic, and emotionally untouchable.
A term sometimes used for hard-boiled fiction is "mean streets," as in Raymond Chandler's "Down these mean streets a man must go." "Mean" dates from the thirteenth century when it meant to share, out of necessity, that which was already sparse. "Mean" later referred to the shabby and inferior, the powerless and without grace. "Dangerous" streets would have more potential than "mean" streets. In Woolrich, even things and places became threatening and capable of violence to the soul.
"Noir" is a French word, meaning the color "black" and having the meaning of gloom and sorrow, of mourning. The roman noir is a dark novel or a story of the dark side of life. "Noir" was used internationally in games like Roulette where it is paired with "rouge." As the only colors on which one could bet. Games in which your chances were 50-50 to win or lose. In noir fiction, both gloom and one's lack of control over the forces of chance joined.
A Parisian publisher first used the term S鲩e Noir for a series of French reprints of the American pulp fiction of Hammett, Chandler, and Woolrich for which the word "hard-boiled" had been used. Noir later became associated with a film style that conveyed violence and despair by using a stark, deeply shadowed black and white.
Noir fiction and film developed together throughout the 1940s. The cynical, unemotional characters wandering the shabby mean streets of hard-boiled pulp fiction of the 1920-1930s were transformed by the elegance of the poetic metaphorical language of Chandler and the visually stunning images of film adding a new sophistication that became characteristic of noir. Characters could be both rich and "mean."
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