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?