: rough, unsparing treatment (as in use or in life)
Commercial-strength squares—baked clay, ceramic, vinyl or rubber stand up to hard knocks at home.—Apartment Life
: difficult or painful experiences or circumstances
This is a testimonial, above all, of hard knocks, from a mother's absence and a family's sacrifice to care for his older, tubercular brother to the betrayal by White House patrons and staff. —Roger Morris
—often used in the phrase school of hard knocks Romances with men are the curriculum you'll need to determine what's right for you and what isn't. I'd prefer if you'd learn quickly and easily, rather than at the school of hard knocks. —Dave Singleton
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