tough cookie

Definition: A strong, determined individual

Example: Dave fought off the motorcycle gang with nothing more than his bus pass and a copy of the New York Times. He was one tough cookie. 


‘Tough cookie’ is predominantly an American phrase. You are unlikely to hear any self-respecting Brit using the term.

Iddy thinks this is one of the most ridiculous things he has heard so far. Why compare somebody hard, whether physically or mentally, to a cookie? Cookies are inherently sweet. Cookies are usually brittle. Cookies are the stuff of life itself.

Maybe there’s a clue in the word itself. ‘Cookie’ is a North American term. In the UK, cookies are called biscuits. No self-respecting Brit is ever going to ask for a cookie at a bakery.

The word itself is derived from the Dutch ‘koekje’, or ‘little cake’, and probably entered American English with Dutch settlers. Still no connection to being tough, unless those original Dutch settlers over-baked their koekjes.

In the 1920s, ‘cookie‘ became a slang term for a young woman. Just watch any old gangster movie about Prohibition. It will probably feature a ‘cookie‘ in it somewhere. The term does make some sort of sense, in that the young woman is sweet and desirable.

The first appearance of the now standard ‘tough cookie‘ is just after the end of World War II, but how the ‘tough’ became welded to the baked good is unknown. Also unclear is how the term then came to describe both sexes when it had previously been only applied to women.

So, no explanations from Iddy. And he still thinks it’s ridiculous.

5 Responses

    1. Hey Bernadette. I agree that the term is most often applied to a young woman, but growing up in Canada, the term was used for both sexes, at least when we were children. Dictionary definitions also refer to it as being applied to a person, not specifically to a young woman. Recently, Trump called Congressman Greg Gianforte a tough cookie, but Trump’s grasp of the English language can sometimes be a bit tenuous. But I’m happy to be corrected, if that’s the case. Any men out there been called tough cookies?

  1. There literally is a Dutch ‘tough cookie’. It is called ‘taai taai’ (pronunciation: ‘tie tie’, meaning ‘tough tough’). It consists of a dough of rye flour, honey and aniseed, which after baking really is very tough! Traditionally eaten – and/or given as a present – on the 5th of December in honour of Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas / Santa Claus).
    The original Dutch proverb of ‘he/she is a tough cookie’ is ‘hij/zij is een ouwe taaie’ (an old tough). ‘cookie’ / ‘koekje’ is left out because ‘taai taai’ is the name of the cookie itself (and it gets even tougher when it is old!).

    Greetings from The Hague (The Netherlands),

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