‘Been Through the Mill’: Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on December 13, 2023

Have you ever come across the peculiar expression 'been through the mill' and wondered what it means? Then you're in the right place! In this article, we'll learn the idiom's meaning, its possible origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

If you're just here to find out what it means, here's the short version: 

  • The idiom 'been through the mill' is an expression that means someone has experienced a difficult or problematic period in their life.

What Does 'Been Through the Mill' Mean?

The idiom 'been through the mill' is used to describe someone going through a difficult time for one reason or another. It suggests that the person has faced adversity, hardship, or a series of trials that have tested their resilience or endurance.

This saying is a perfect example of how idioms can't be interpreted literally. Can you imagine actually going through a mill? It would be a very painful experience! That's why this idiom (and most idioms) are metaphorical.

So how do you use it? Let's say, for example, that your friend had gotten a divorce last year and hadn't had it very well. You might say:

He's really been through the mill since the divorce.

'Been through the mill' is in the past participle form. You could also use it in other forms and tenses, such as:

  • present continuous ('going through the mill')
  • future simple ('will go through')
  • present indefinite ('go through the mill')

just to name a few.

Where Does 'Been Through the Mill' Come From?

The origins of the idiom 'been through the mill' are somewhat uncertain, but it likely comes from the idea of grain or wheat being processed through a mill. In a mill, grain is crushed or ground into flour, which can be a physically demanding and challenging process. Over time, this concept of going through a complex or demanding process was applied metaphorically to describe people who have faced hardships or challenges in life.

We've seen it in writing since at least the early 1800s, as evidenced in the following passage of The Miners' Journal and Pottsville General Advertiser:

If report speaks true, some others who are now most active, will have to go through the mill this winter; therefore don't be too savagely virtuous in your expressed indignation, or you may furnish dangerous precedents.

The idiom has been in use for several centuries, and it's often used to convey the idea that someone has been through a grueling or exhausting experience. The exact origin and earliest documented use of the phrase may be difficult to trace, as idiomatic expressions often evolve over time through common usage.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it.

After their divorce, my parents both went through the mill.

She had been through the mill with her illness but was now on the road to recovery.

Surviving the earthquake and its aftermath, the entire town had been through the mill.

The young soldier had been through the mill during his time in the war.

Having lost his job and facing financial troubles, he was truly going through the mill.

Raising three kids on her own was no easy task; she had been through the mill as a single parent.

The business had been through the mill with various economic downturns but had managed to stay afloat.

You can see it in her eyes; she's been through the mill and come out stronger.

The athlete had been through the mill with injuries and setbacks but was determined to continue competing.

After years of hard work and perseverance, the author had been through the mill to finally get their book published. 

Other Ways to Say 'Been Through the Mill'

There are plenty of other ways to say you've been having a tough time. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

  • Been through the wringer
  • Seen better days
  • Faced trials and tribulations
  • Battled adversity
  • Walked a rough road
  • Gone through tough times
  • Endured hardships
  • Weathered the storm
  • Been to hell and back
  • Suffered setbacks

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says they have been through the mill, it means they have had a hard time because of a very difficult experience.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more! 

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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