If a person receives news that is difficult to accept, they might say “that is a hard pill to swallow.”
Example: I’ll be moving across country soon to be closer to family. It’s a hard pill to swallow knowing that my friends will be so far away, but we’ll figure out a way stay in contact.
The Origin Of ‘Hard Pill To Swallow’
A long time ago, it looks like this phrase was simply said as “a pill to swallow.” Then later, the adjectives “hard” and “bitter” were added to it. What do I base this on? Well, the oldest version of the expression that I could find does not have any adjectives in it. For example, in the 17th century, an English poet named John Dryden wrote the expression in a work of his called Essay of Dramatic Peosy, 1668:
“We cannot read a verse of Cleveland’s without making a face at it, as if every word were a Pill to swallow: he gives us many times a hard Nut to break our Teeth, without a Kernal for our pains.”
Sometime later, the word “bitter” was added to the phrase. How much later? The earliest example I could find is from a French historian named Mr. Rapin Thoyras. In one of his written works from 1736, it reads:
“This event, which happened the 7th of September, N.S. was immediately follow’d by the relieving of time after, with the total explulsion of the French out of all Italy; a bitter pill to swallow.”
Finally, the earliest I could find the idiom with “hard” in it is from the Morning Journal newspaper, 1829:
“That they will prove a hard pill for Turkey to swallow is to be expected, unless, indeed, some decided friend has recently sprung up, who will not allow Turkey to be so crippled as to make her fall an easy prey next time she is attacked.”
- Carter realized that he was losing his hair and this was a hard pill for him to swallow.
- It was a hard pill to swallow when I failed my driving test, but I bounced back and passed it on my second try.
Note: While it is easy to find the meaning of idioms and phrases, the same cannot be said about their origin. Yes, sometimes it is unclear where or how a phrase originated. When that happens, there will usually still be a quote of the expression on the page. These quotes come from old newspapers or books and their purpose is to give you an idea on how old the phrase is.