What Does A Bitter Pill to Swallow Mean?

Bitter Pill Meaning

Definition: Something unpleasant or hurtful that is hard to accept.

A bitter pill to swallow is a truth that people do not want to face but one that cannot be avoided. Like a pill must be swallowed, this fact must be taken in. However, because it is a “bitter” pill, it may hurt or feel uncomfortable to accept.

 Most often, a bitter pill to swallow is information that people do not want to know because it hurts their pride or feelings. However, there is no getting away from this information.

Similar variations of this phrase are a tough pill to swallow and a hard pill to swallow.

Origin of A Bitter Pill to Swallow

A tough pill to swallow The phrase pill to swallow has been in use since the 1600s. In the 1700s, Rapin Thoyras, who wrote about the history of France and Italy, added the word bitter to the phrase:

This event, which happened the 7th of September, N.S. was immediately follow’d by the relieving of time after, with the total expulsion of the French out of all Italy; a bitter pill to swallow.

Since then, people have referred to an uncomfortable set of facts as “a bitter pill to swallow” or “a hard pill to swallow.”

Examples of a Bitter Pill to Swallow

A Hard pill to swallow This phrase could be used to describe any fact that makes someone uncomfortable. A man seeing his ex-wife be remarried before he has remarried might find that marriage to be a bitter pill to swallow because he is uncomfortable or sad about it happening.

A bitter pill to swallow is also commonly used in reference to things that could not literally swallow a pill, like countries.

For example, if England were to decide it was no longer going to trade with France, even though the two countries are very close to each other, it could be said, “this new trade law is a bitter pill for France to swallow.”

More Examples

  • Dustin Brown made it clear that the decision to replace him with Anze Kopitar following the Kings’ first-round playoff loss was “a bitter pill to swallow.” –LA Times
  • “Their relatives now have a bitter pill to swallow,” Ponce resident Omar Ruiz, who lost several friends in the attack, said as he put up decorations for a vigil. “They lost a loved one because they went in search of a more promising future.” –Medina Gazette


The phrase a bitter pill to swallow is an uncomfortable truth that cannot be avoided.