What Does A Hard Pill to Swallow Mean?

Hard Pill to Swallow Meaning

Definition: Difficult to accept.

This expression describes something that is hard or difficult to accept. When someone receives bad news that he or she has no choice but to accept or no ability to change, it is said to be a hard pill to swallow.

Origin of Hard Pill to Swallow

This expression in its current formation started appearing in written works around the year 1830. The earliest use I could find was in the Morning Journal newspaper from 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.

difficult to swallow meaningBefore this, however, other variations of the phrase were common. The phrase first appeared as a pill to swallow, and then it later morphed into a bitter pill to swallow, both of which preceded the modern day variation hard pill to swallow.

In 1668, poet John Dryden published Essay of Dramatic Peosy in which he said,

  • 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. 

In 1736, French historian Rapin Thoyras wrote,

  • 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.

This phrase most likely developed from the idea of taking medicine. Sometimes medicine can be bitter to swallow or pills can be so big that they are hard to swallow, but it is necessary to stay alive.

At the end of the day, you need to take your medicine, and there isn’t a way around it.

Examples of Hard Pill to Swallow

tough pill to swallowHere is an example of the idiom being used by a young girl and her grandmother while having lunch together.

Grandmother: I’m so sorry to tell you this, but I have some bad news.

Granddaughter: Oh no. What is it?

Grandmother: We called the hotel, and they couldn’t find your teddy bear in the room. It looks like we might not be able to find it.

Granddaughter: But I love that bear! It’s my favorite toy!

Grandmother: I know it’s a hard pill to swallow, but there’s nothing more we can do.

Granddaughter: We can go back and look for it?

Grandmother: We can’t fly back to another country just to look for your bear. I’m sorry, sweetie.

The second dialogue shows the idiom used by a daughter and her father.

Father: Where do you think you’re going?

Daughter: I’m going to a movie with my friends.

Father: Oh no you’re not.

Daughter: Um, yes, I am.

Father: Nope. You’re grounded. I just saw your report card. You not allowed to go out with your friends at all until you are passing all your classes.

Daughter: That’s not fair!

Father: It’s a hard pill to swallow, but you just have to accept it. In the long term, it will be better for you.

More Examples

In the below expert, this idiom is used to explain that it is difficult for athletes when they lose a game.  

  • “All games that you lose are a hard pill to swallow and upsetting and all that. But we were in command of this game for almost 36 minutes and we weren’t able to close it out.” –Washington Post

This Washington Post excerpt contains the idiom in a quote. It is used to describe how difficult it was for black servicemen to fight for their country but also be discriminated against.

  • “It’s tough to understand how you can serve your country one way, and you’re not good enough to be in the country another way. That’s a hard pill to swallow,” said Raymond Wilson, another Tuskegee Airman, in “Veterans of Color.” New York Daily News


The phrase a hard pill to swallow is an expression that means that even if it is necessary to accept something bad, it is still hard to do so.m