The Grammarphobia Blog

When people are hard to swallow

Q: Why is an unpleasant person called a “pill”? For example, “So and so is a real pill.”

A: As you might suspect, this slang use of “pill” comes from medicine.

The word “pill” in its medical sense has been around since at least the late 1300s. It ultimately comes from the Latin pillula, which in classical times meant a little ball or pellet and in medieval times also meant a bullet.

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary for the medicinal “pill” is from an English translation of a Latin medical text, Guido Lanfranc’s Science of Cirurgie. The OED dates the translation to sometime before 1400.

Here’s the quotation: “He schal ofte be purgid with pillis.” (The “th” in “with” was actually a runic letter called a thorn.)

The original meaning, according to the OED, was “a small compressed ball or globular mass containing a medicinal substance, intended to be taken by mouth and usually of a size convenient for swallowing whole.”

A note in the OED adds: “Pills were originally made by mixing the drug with an inert substance and rolling it into a spherical shape.”

In the mid-1500s people began using the word to mean any remedy or solution, especially an unpleasant one that had to be endured.

That meaning gave us the expression “bitter pill,” as in this quotation from Jane Austen’s novel Mansfield Park (1814): “Mrs. Rushworth will be very angry. It will be a bitter pill to her.”

Since the middle of the 19th century, writers have been using “pill” to refer to people who are hard to swallow for one reason or another.

A person might be called a “pill” for being unpleasant, foolish, boring, weak, or otherwise difficult to take.

The OED cites an example from Carry on, Jeeves! by P. G. Wodehouse: “What’s to be done? … That pill is coming to stay here.”

When Pat was growing up in Iowa the word was often used affectionately. If her grandparents said, “What a pill!” they might be referring to someone with a mischievous or irrepressible sense of humor.

However, we haven’t found this affectionate sense of the word in slang dictionaries.

“Pill” has had many other slang meanings over the centuries. Among things that have been described as “pills” are baseballs, basketballs, billiards, cigarettes, doctors, the testicles, and even (in an echo of medieval Latin) bullets.

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