• Joanne Mason

Bitter Pill to Swallow


I’m terrible about taking cough medicine. Even when it’s been doctored up with cherry or grape flavor, there’s no fooling me. I know I will make faces and gag as it slides down my throat. And if I don’t get the whole serving in one shot, I will shiver with dread at the thought of finishing it.


Thinking of cough medicine reminds me of my then-3-year-old pal Sam (now a college student) and the time he convinced me to take my “bitter pill.”


He had strep throat and was sitting at the dining room table with a trying-to-be-festive cup of pink penicillin. I joined him with my plastic shot glass of cherry cough syrup. We sat silently for a few minutes, staring at our cups.


“Sam,” I sighed. ” I don’t want to take my medicine.”


“It will make it better,” he replied, reassuringly.


We clinked our little cups and reluctantly downed our unpleasant meds. In a few days, his throat healed and my cough stopped.


With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing its hold of the world, social distancing has become a bitter pill to swallow – something difficult to cope with, but necessary for the greater good. (Sometimes, it’s phrased as a hard pill to swallow.)


Used in this contest, the phrase pill to swallow is thought to originate in the 1600s. Writing Explained notes that the word bitter was added later:

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, the world has swallowed a lot of bitter pills. And here we are again. Social distancing is tough. We want to see live concerts, attend weddings, go to the movies, connect with our friends and family. Instead, we stay home, binge watch movies on streaming services and video chat with our buddies.


It’s all for the greater good. As Sam wisely said, “It will make it better,” even if it makes things worse in the short term.


On a lighter note, I actually remember the first time I noticed the idiom bitter pill to swallow. It’s featured in the title of one my favorite, though truly melancholy, songs by the Jam:




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