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Something that is hard to accept.
In the later half of the 17th century, it appears this phrase first started out simply as "a pill to swallow," and then afterwards the adjectives hard and bitter were added to the front of it. For example, an English poet from the 17th century, John Dryden, published a work of his in 1668 called Essay of Dramatic Peosy. He wrote down the expression without the words hard or bitter preceding it:
"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."
Later, the word 'bitter' was added to the phrase. The earliest example I could find of this is from a French historian named Mr. Rapin Thoyras, who wrote books on the "History of England." 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
Tarin, which after having sustain'd a long siege, was reduc'd to the utmost extremeities; and some
time after, with the total explulsion of the French out of all Italy; a bitter pill to swallow."
And finally we come to the modern version of the idiom, which is "a hard pill to swallow." It looks to have taken until the early 1800s until this form of the phrase began to appear in writing. The Morning Journal newspaper from 1829, for example, reads:
"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."
Note: The definitions for phrases and sayings can be found with ease, but finding the origins of phrases proves far more challenging. Looking back through history, it's tough to find the place or person in which a phrase has its roots. We are limited to what can be found in writings, such as books, poems, newspapers, and plays. Often times, phrases will be quoted from century old newspapers, or from plays that were done in the 17th century by playwrights like William Shakespeare.
The phrases that are quoted are likely already commonly known, and have their origins elsewhere. For instance, just because an idiom shows up in a newspaper from 1850, does not mean the idiom originated from that newspaper. However, what that does tell you, is that the phrase was being used since 1850, so its origins are at least more than 150 years old.
* It was a hard pill for Jason to swallow when he realized his body's build was no longer as slender as it was in his twenties.