« Pain amer » seems to be a common enough expression that movies and books are given this title, and it is the subject of this wordplay of Camus' in La peste:

La souffrance des enfants était notre pain amer, mais sans ce pain, notre âme périrait de sa faim spirituelle.

Yet it seems not to be common enough to appear under a separate heading in dictionaries, even Expressio.

In a Google Ngrams search, the first batch of uses (1700-1777) seem to be literal (e.g. « le seigle fait du pain amer »), and the next batch (1778–1857) seem to treat it as an expression already (e.g. « Manger un pain amer détrempé de ses larmes »).

What is the origin? It feels vaguely biblical. But many biblical expressions have calques in English since both are calqued from the original Hebrew or Greek idiom (cf. feet of clay / pieds d'argile), whereas I can't think of a ready-made equivalent for « pain d'amer » in English.

  • "Bitter bread" is at least as much used - if not more - in English as it is in French, has been for long (cf Shakespeare's famous quote "the bitter bread of banishment" where it is already used with a figurative meaning). Run an ngram to get several examples. And it is used in lots of languages other than French and English so I do not think the question is specific to the French Language.
    – None
    Apr 6, 2020 at 8:20
  • Bitter bread is a name given to brown bread, brown bread having a bitter taste, and brown bread is considered as inferior and therefore poor people's bread.
    – None
    Apr 6, 2020 at 8:20
  • You can't grammatically and semantically compare pieds d'argile where argile is a noun defining a material, with pain amer where amer is an adjective describing a characteristic. Pain d'amer as you write it would be an impossible construction, amer being used there as a noun, whereas amer is only used as an adjective.
    – None
    Apr 6, 2020 at 8:30
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because there is no explanation and origin of the phrase that is specific to French. The phrase is used in other languages (bitter bread, bitteres Brot, pane amaro etc.) with exactly the same literal and figurative meanings.
    – None
    Apr 6, 2020 at 8:39
  • 2

1 Answer 1


L'expression « un pain amer » connaît des fortunes diverses dans les langues européennes. Elle est associée le plus souvent à la douleur de l'exil. Elle appartient à un fonds commun de la culture européenne qui trouve sa source dans La Divine Comédie du Dante, plus précisément , dans le chant XVII du Paradis :

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale.

Dans les traductions françaises, on retrouve souvent l'image du pain amer pour rendre les vers du Florentin :

« Tu seras obligé d'abandonner ce qui te sera le plus cher : c'est la première flèche que lance l'arc de l'exil. Tu apprendras combien le pain étranger est amer et combien il est dur de monter et descendre l'escalier d'autrui. » (Traduction d'Artaud de Montor, début du 19e siècle.)

« Tu éprouveras combien le pain de l'étranger recèle d'amertume, et quel dur chemin c'est de monter et de descendre l'escalier d'autrui. » (Traduction de Saint-Mauris, milieu du 19e siècle.)

« Tu éprouveras combien d'autrui le pain est amer et quel dur chemin est le monter et le descendre par l'escalier d'autrui. » (Traduction de Lamennais, milieu du 19e siècle.)

« Tu sentiras alors quel sel amer on goûte
Au pain de l'étranger, et quelle dure route
De descendre et monter par l'escalier d'autrui ! »
(Traduction de Ratisbonne, milieu du 19e siècle.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.