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What the dickens does ‘Live Free or Die Hard’ mean?

Got a lovely e-mail from someone named Paul who enjoyed “Live Free or Die Hard,” as well as my review of it. He added this:

But I don’t know who all these people are who think the title is dumb — I think it kicks [butt]. I can just see the guys in Iraq painting that slogan on their tanks.

I thanked Paul for his kind words about my review, and said I guess the title seems dumb because … well, what does it MEAN? “Live Free or Die Hard.” Sure, it sounds cool, but what does it actually mean?

He responded:

I guess I took it as “Live Free or Die Hard (trying to be free).”

Or maybe “(Let us) Live Free (you terrorists, or you’re going to) Die Hard.”

Um…..yeah, I guess it’s dumb.

I applaud Paul’s efforts to try to make sense of the title. The original expression, “Die Hard,” is generally a noun or adjective phrase. As an adjective, it means “never give up,” as in, “John McClane is a die-hard supporter of the Second Amendment.” As a noun, it means a person characterized that way: “When it comes to the Second Amendment, John McClane is a die-hard.”

Turning it into a movie title makes it a sort of pun. Literally, it’s a free-floating adjective phrase: A die-hard what? But we understand what they mean. They mean it is very hard to make John McClane die. “Hard to Kill” would have been a more accurate expression of that thought; two years after “Die Hard,” there was indeed a movie of that name. It starred Steven Seagal, who in his wildest dreams could never be as cool as John McClane.

The first “Die Hard” sequel was properly called “Die Hard 2,” but its promotional title was “Die Harder.” That’s an even more tortured expression, essentially meaning, I guess, “It’s now even harder to make John McClane die than it was before.”

“Die Hard with a Vengeance” makes no sense whatsoever. There’s no vengeance associated with being a die-hard. It just means you’re passionate and committed to whatever it is you’re a die-hard about. I think it’s supposed to make us think “Die with a Vengeance,” as in, “You might be able to make me die, but so help me, I’m going to take you down with me.”

Which brings us to “Live Free or Die Hard.” The title literally means “I’m either going to live as a free man, or I’m going to be a passionately committed proponent of something,” which is silly, because to be a die-hard supporter of something, you’d have to be alive, too. And couldn’t you be a die-hard AND live free?

The filmmakers obviously were trying to think of familiar expressions that involve the word “die” and hit upon New Hampshire’s state motto, “Live free or die.” The fact that “Live Free or Die Hard” doesn’t actually mean anything was irrelevant because it sounded cool. But I wonder what other common expressions with “die” in them were considered first….

“Never Say Die Hard”
“No, Mr. Bond, I Expect You to Die Hard”
“Prince Charles and Lady Die Hard”
“Curl Up and Die Hard”
“Lie Down in the Gutter and Die Hard”
“Hyundai Hard”
“Get Rich or Die Hard Tryin'”
“Too Young to Die Hard”

Any others?

30 Responses to “What the dickens does ‘Live Free or Die Hard’ mean?”

  1. Steve Says:

    I don’t have any new titles to suggest, but I must say that I never particularly cared for New Hampshire’s state motto. It’s not because as a former resident of that state I got sick of seeing the motto emblazoned across every official document (driver’s license, car title, property deed, speed limit signs, and so on). It’s because it’s awkwardly phrased. “Give me liberty or give me death” eloquently expresses the sentiment that death is preferable to a lack of liberty. “Death before dishonor” clearly conveys the same feeling about being dishonored.

    The problem with the phrase “live free or die” is that, all by itself, it sounds like a command, and it seems silly to command someone to live free (Now listen here, you! You’re going to do whatever you want, you got it?). It’s the kind of phrase that a thug would use when he has a gun to your head, like “your money or your life.” It’s even closer to the things that bad guys say in movies while threatening the hero’s life: “Join me or die!”

    So, welcome to New Hampshire, but be warned: at the first sign of subservience, we’ll cut your throat.

  2. Orlando Says:

    I want to Die Hard!
    (about McLane fighting post traumatic depression)

  3. KMD Says:

    I predict that if there is another sequel in the Die Hard series, the title will be “Get Rich or Die Hard Tryin’ ”

    Loved the made up titles Eric, thanks for the laugh.

  4. Ray Says:

    The phrase ‘with a vengeance’ is usually taken to mean ‘with great intensity’.

  5. Jesse Harris Says:

    The cheesy titles are totally awesome and, I think, entirely intentional.

  6. Randy Tayler Says:

    Color Soft but Tie-Die Hard
    Die Hard Another Day
    Twenty-sided Die Hard

  7. D-rickulus Says:

    Who Died Hard and Made You King?

  8. Kyle Says:

    Only the Good Die Hard Young
    I Don’t Wanna Die Hard
    The Day the Music Died Hard
    To Die Hard For
    True Love Never Dies Hard

  9. card Says:

    I think that the “Die” is German for “The.” So, it really means “The Hard.”

    Any movie with German in the title couldn’t be bad!

  10. Melissa Says:

    Worth mentioning — here in Britain, the movie is called “Die Hard 4.0”. Probably because Brits don’t go see movies with nonsensical titles.

  11. BeeDub Says:

    As I Lay Dying Hard
    Harry Potter and the Deathly Hardly Hallows

  12. Commenty Commentenstein Says:

    The Die Hard Has Been Cast
    To Live and Die Hard in L.A.
    A Kiss Before Dying Hard
    Do or Die Hard

  13. Matt Says:

    Die Hard to Heart?

  14. whome Says:

    How about using the “hard” part of the title?

    It’s die hard to say I love you
    a die hard day’s work
    die harder than it looks
    die hard labor
    die hard hearted
    too die hard for me

  15. maxo Says:

    I agree, basically the first one was a pun not worth a lol much less a rofl, all the other ones just compound on this pun senselessly, usually with multiple half-meanings.

    The with a Vengenace part also would refer to the plot, with the vengenace for hans gruber’s death and all.

  16. Momma Snider Says:

    I hope I die hard before I get old.

  17. BAC Says:


  18. thejoeinme Says:

    Don’t forget Puff Daddy’s 2004 campaign to get the young’ns to vote: “Vote or Die Hard.”

    My favorite from Eric’s list is, by far, Hyundai Hard.

    There’s also the Iron Maiden crowd-pleaser, “Die Hard With Your Boots On,” taken from a movie of the same name. And, Metallica’s instrumental classic, “To Live Is to Die Hard.”

  19. Chrystle Says:

    I’m wondering if we can take it in the context of coming down hard on something. “I’m gonna smack down hard, and them’s gonna feel it” type thing. That would then turn the title to mean either live free, or let them feel your anger and wrath as you go down.

    Just a thought

    Not that the titlist (is that even a job? If so, I want it!) put that much thought into it.

  20. Turkey Says:

    “Hyundai Hard” would be cute, except that in every commercial for those cars I’ve ever seen, it’s been pronounced “Hun-day” not “Hun-di.” So that makes even less sense then Live Free or Die Hard.

  21. David Manning Says:

    Chrystle: Actually, Alfred Hitchcok’s (!) first film-related job was as a title designer for silent films. So, yes (in the ’20s, at least).

    Using whome’s method, I got:

    Die Hard-Liquor
    Die Hardy Boys
    Die Hardball

  22. David Cornelius Says:

    I point you here:

    My favorite suggestion in the comments section: Dying Hard, or Hardly Dying?

  23. artie watkins Says:

    i love eric. seriously. not how you’re thinking, but like my mother likes my father. here you go:

    tie-dyed hard
    dy-no-mite hard
    there’s no die in team
    dino-hard: extinction with a vengeance

    i suck.

  24. Carrie Says:

    Eat S**t and Die Hard
    Die Rock Hard

  25. Craig Says:

    I’m tempted to go with even less conventional breaks in the title:

    “Should I hard stay or should I hard go?”
    “Could I hard have this dance?”
    “Would I hard lie to you?”

    Of course, the ultimate title munge mixes this film with the 1973 James Bond to give:

    “Live Free and/or Let Die Hard”

  26. Lisa Says:

    Bruce Willis was on The Daily Show. He told Jon Stewart about some possible titles:
    Die Hard: Just Start Blastin’ Everything That Moves
    Die Hard: Just Can’t Kill ‘im
    Die Hard: Just Can’t Blow ‘im Up

  27. GP Says:

    John F. Kennedy Hard
    Diet Hard

  28. David Manning Says:

    “He Who Lives Free By The Sword, Dies Hard By The Sword (And Possibly With A Vengeance!)”
    Die Hard Candy
    Die Hard On the Brakes
    Die Hardly Justified
    Die Hard Porn (or Die Hard Pornography; I can never decide which one sounds better)

    …And for the record, that vomit-inducing “Die Hardy Boys” was my mom’s idea (she was in the room and thought it was clever). Ugh. Just reading that makes me want to punch someone…

  29. tyler mcdowell Says:

    take two of these and die hard in the morning

  30. Quetzal Says:

    Vermont’s license plate motto is “Live Free or Die.” There’s just gotta be a connection between that and the film’s title. There’s too much similarity to have no connection. So what izzit? I don’t know,. Could it be a commentary on the notion that if one can’t live free, he’s gotta die in a big way, a hard way? I’m not sure.

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