Grammar

Why Do We Say, ‘Bite the Bullet’?

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Whenever I write a post to explain an idiom like ‘bite the bullet,’ I normally go in with a decent idea of its origin before I research it.

From time to time, you may hear someone offer you advice on something you’re not sure you want to do. They’ll tell you to just bite the bullet and get it over with.

First things first, phrases like bite the bullet are examples of idioms. We define an idiom as a popular expression whose meaning may not necessarily be clear if you just look at the words on the surface.

Here’s one idea about where it came from.

Before I started looking into this one, I had two notions of how the expression came to be. Both involved people who had been wounded in battle. The first idea involved something a doctor might tell a gunfighter hit in a shootout in the wild wild West. The second involved a similar scenario but the doctor would be a medic on the field tending to a Civil War soldier.

It struck me as the kind of thing a doctor who’s without anesthesia might say to a patient before beginning a very painful procedure. I’d be willing to bet I’ve heard the phrase in an old movie in just such a context.

Bite the bullet didn’t make its recorded debut until later than the wild wild West and the Civil War. Rudyard Kipling used the phrase in 1891’s The Light That Failed.

But it’s still not clear that the phrase didn’t originate before that in exactly the surgery scenario above. Some suggest exactly that as the idiom’s backstory.

So biting the bullet meant bracing yourself for something terrible.

However, I found an alternate notion.

This one dates back to the Indian Rebellion of 1857, according to the Readers Digest.

It explains that in that conflict, the powder cartridge used for the rifles had a paper cartridge soldiers had to bite off before loading it into their gun. Native Indian troops of Muslims and Hindus learned the cartridges were greased with pork and beef fat. Since it is against their religion to eat cow fat, they refused to fight.

Biting the bullet, then, meant doing something you didn’t want to do.

And here’s one more!

The Free Dictionary points to Francis Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue from 1796. It suggests grenadiers being disciplined with cat-o’nine-tails would bite down on a bullet to avoid crying out in pain.

It’s certainly similar to the first option and it’s another military origin story.

But you’d have to decide for yourself which option seems most plausible.


In any case, keep in mind what the phrase actually means: “to&nbsp force&nbsp yourself to do something&nbsp unpleasant&nbsp or&nbsp difficult, or to be&nbsp brave&nbsp in a&nbsp difficult&nbsp situation.”

The fact that there’s no bullet and generally biting of anything involved is what makes the phrase an idiom to begin with, no matter where it came from!

the authorPatrick
Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.