"Hard up" is an English idiom that is used to describe someone or a group of people who are in a dire financial situation. Such people are lacking the funds necessary to complete some objective or are simply lacking money in general compared with others. Another way that the phrase "hard up" is used is as a way of describing people who lack something that they need. Like many idioms, the origin of this phrase dates back to nautical times, when it was used to describe the position of a boat being steered away from windy conditions.
On certain occasions, a person who is speaking English may decide to choose a word or short phrase that is used for color or expressiveness. These words and phrases, which are known as idioms, may have accepted meanings which differ greatly from the actual definitions of the words they contain. Instead, these idioms gain their meanings over time depending on the way that they are used in the culture. One of these idioms is the phrase "hard up."
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The most common usage of this phrase is as a means of denoting poverty. Someone who is described in this manner is often lacking the money he or she needs. This phrase can be used to describe people who are perpetually in a state of poverty, or it can be used for those people who might only be temporarily in that situation. As an example, someone might say, "Ever since I went to college, I've been hard up trying to pay back all of my loans."
In certain occasions, the meaning of this idiomatic expression may be stretched to the point where it can denote any situation where someone lacks something. Whereas certain people are lacking money, other people have other necessities in life that they may be lacking. The phrase, when used in this manner, can also be used to describe a temporary need that is not being filled. For example, consider the sentence, "It's a shame that they are so hard up for volunteers, since they are a wonderful charitable organization."
Many idioms come from the time when sailing ships were the primary mode of transportation over long distances. When strong winds buffeted such a ship, the helm was turned in a position known as hard up windward. The modern meaning comes from the fact that people who are poor are dealing with a financial storm.