Can 'to swallow' be used to indicate that you have a hard time accepting a truth?

Neither a hard time in the sense of being able to understand it nor to accept that it is true, but rather in the emotional sense.


I will show this to you now, but you better sit down. It's pretty sad and will be hard to swallow.

I know that I'm mostly transforming this from German, where the direct translation is used in this meaning. However, I am under the impression that I have heard it used in English as well. I can not find it on Merriam-Webster or Macmillan, though. Did I just make it up?

If this usage is not valid, can you suggest alternative verbs for dealing with the emotional side of something sad/scary/moving?


Hard to swallow is acceptable and is commonly used in [British] English. I use it frequently, and I hear it used frequently. Yes, it means hard to believe or accept, but equally it can mean hard to come to terms with, which fits the emotional angle that you are interested in.


(Not very) interestingly, it's also the third album by Vanilla Ice!


Something that is hard to swallow, figuratively speaking, means something that is difficult either to believe or to accept.

I find your tales of college dorm life hard to swallow.

The death of my friend was a hard pill to swallow.

  • 1
    Note that the "hard to believe" meaning is far more common in English.
    – Marthaª
    Dec 4 '10 at 18:55
  • @Martha Is there an alternative for the emotional meaning then? There's "hard to take", but that feels very ambiguous to me. In some contexts it might be clear, in others not at all. Dec 4 '10 at 19:26
  • 5
    @hheimbuerger: You could say "hard to stomach."
    – Robusto
    Dec 4 '10 at 19:28
  • I have often heard "hard to hear" in this senseext, though I am not happy with the phrase, which to me rather suggests "inaudible". I too would most readily understand "hard to swallow" as "hard to believe".
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 4 '10 at 23:25
  • I that case, I consider this question still open. Is there really no phrase in English to express this properly? :) Dec 5 '10 at 0:29

I'd recommend the phrase "a bitter pill to swallow" if you are presenting something that the other person won't necessarily have difficulty in believing, but will find to be a very unpleasant revelation:

I'd known for a while that our relationship was struggling, but this proof of infidelity is still a bitter pill to swallow.

  • The disbelief or inability to accept is key to hard to swallow. Yours is a perfectly good idiom, but I don't think it conveys the meaning that the OP is talking about.
    – CJM
    Feb 3 '11 at 17:08
  • "can you suggest alternative verbs for dealing with the emotional side of something sad/scary/moving?" - a bitter pill to swallow doesn't best fit.
    – CJM
    Feb 3 '11 at 22:41

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