This proverb relies on the multiple meanings of ‘tough’ and ‘to get going’. The proverb means that when a situation becomes difficult, strong people will get to work.
‘When the going gets tough’ means when the situation becomes hard. But ‘get going‘ and ‘tough’ mean slightly different things in the second half of the proverb. Here, get going means get to work; tough means strong people.
This proverb can be taken to apply to people who are physically strong. However, it can also apply to mental strength.
This proverb is also sometimes interpreted in an ironic way. The ironic meaning is that when a situation becomes difficult, so called tough people will actually run away.
Again, this interpretation relies on yet another meaning of ‘to get going’. Here to get going means to flee.
Often, the tone of voice in which a person quotes a proverb will tell you whether they mean it ironically or not.
- Relationships: a truly strong person will put more work into a relationship when it becomes challenging.
- Study: when a subject is difficult to learn, a strong person will put in extra effort.
- Sport: when a game is a difficult one, strong sportspeople will go that extra mile.
Conclusion: Stay strong in adversity.