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Idiom Origins: The Meaning of "Bite the Bullet"

L. Sarhan has a B.A. in English and creative writing. She is currently working on an M.A. in English and creative writing.

Learn more about the idiom "bite the bullet" used in figurative speech and explore the historical origins of this phrase.

Learn more about the idiom "bite the bullet" used in figurative speech and explore the historical origins of this phrase.

In life, we are all faced with things that are unpleasant, yet necessary or unavoidable. Sometimes we must accept the situation and get through it. You will often hear people in these situations say they have to “bite the bullet,” but while many people have a basic understanding of the meaning of this figure of speech do not know how this phrase originated.

The Meaning

Although many people use it as a way to denote doing something they do not want to do, it extends beyond that. It can signify a hardship that a person, either physically or psychologically, must face and deal with head-on with little to no resistance. For some people, it is doing something difficult or unpleasant without showing fear or distress in the situation. In other words, to show courage in the face of adversity and challenge. It is understood that it is not something the person wants to do but will do it anyway because it is something that is inevitably unavoidable. Thus, the person accepts their fate in the situation.

Origins

The figurative phrase “bite the bullet” has a few origin stories from around the world spanning across history, yet the one often consistent element is that this phrase originates out of the battlefields.

American Civil War (1861 -1865)

The most common origin story heard in America is about Civil War soldiers who were subjugated to medical procedures and surgeries without anesthesia. To combat the pain, they were given a stick or a bullet to bite down on. Yet, upon further study, scholars are skeptical that the bite marks found in the musket and mini´e balls from the Civil War were from field surgeries that did not have access to chloroform and ether as a form of anesthesia. One common assumption is that a soldier would place musket and mini´e balls between their molars before amputations. However, this would pose a choking risk especially if the patient was laying down for the procedure. Dr. Christine Boston (13), an associate professor of sociology and anthropology, claims that some scholars theorize that the bite marks were made by pigs, dogs, or rodents foraging for food in the dirt.

American Revolutionary War (1775 -1783)

Biting the bullet predates the Civil War in American history. The earliest evidence of ‘‘bitten bullets’’ is musket balls that date back to the American Revolutionary War. It is believed that the shallow human molar teeth impressions present are attributed more to the result of chewing to reduce generalized aches and pains, alleviate boredom, or promote salivation to mitigate dehydration (DeRegnaucourt; Sivilich; Stark & Stark).

Biting the bullet has also been attributed to the Revolutionary War when punishments were carried out on military personnel. Jeptha Root Simms reports an eye-witness account of one of the punishments witnessed:

“Near West Point he saw a sergeant, a corporal, and two privates stripped and flogged one cold morning, each receiving one hundred lashes upon his bare back. … The latter did not utter one word of complaint; but each taking a leaden bullet in his mouth, bit upon it as the punishment was inflicted.”

Another variation of “bite the bullet” is “chew the bullet.” It can be found in Francis Grose’s 1796 book, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, which is a slang dictionary and shrewd appeal to the concerns of the time during the Revolutionary War.

A soldier who, as the term is, sings out at the halberts. It is a point of honour in some regiments, among the grenadiers, never to cry out, or become nightingales, whilst under the discipline of the cat of nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.”

Thomas Mellen, a soldier at the Battle of Walloomsac, shows the use of biting or chewing a bullet as an attempt to avoid dehydration. He states, “I soon started for a brook I saw a few rods behind, for I had drank nothing all day, and should have died of thirst if I had not chewed a bullet all the time (qtd. in Stark & Stark).”

At the Battle of Bunker Hill, it was recorded that Revolutionary soldiers would bite and poison the bullets. The biting served two purposes: as a psychological tactic or superstition filling the bullet with hate and rage for their enemy and as a way to make their enemy’s wound jagged allowing more poison to seep in.

Lt. John Waller of the British Marines wrote to his brother soon after this battle:

The army is in great spirits, and full of rage and ferocity at the rebellious rascals, who both poisoned and chewed the musket balls, in order to make them the more fatal. Many officers have died of their wounds, and others very ill…

However, the North American patriots, or revolutionary soldiers, had to have learned this technique from somewhere. Thus, we need to dig into history a little deeper.

The English Civil War (1642–1651)

Oliver Cromwell was known for being ruthless in battle and as a Puritan, he was known to have an intolerant hatred of Catholics and Quakers. In 1663-1664, the English poet Samuel Butler accuses Oliver Cromwell’s English army of biting and poisoning the bullets used against Cromwell’s enemies in the satirical poem Hudibras:

’Twas ill for us we had to do

With so dishon’rable a foe:

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For though the law of arms doth bar

The use of venom’d shot in war,

Yet by the nauseous smell and noisom

Their case-shot savour strong of poison,

And doubtless have been chew’d with teeth

Of some that had a stinking breath…”

This account shows that Cromwell had his soldiers “bite the bullet” and dip it in poison, well before the American Revolutionary War. However, this connection to Cromwell is historically significant as American patriots during the Revolutionary War, being mostly Puritans, often referred to themselves as “the descendants of Oliver Cromwell's army,” or “the descendants of Cromwell's elect (Spalding).” Thus, the American Revolutionary War is often viewed as a repeat of the English Civil Wars.

Indian Rebellion of 1857

While the phrase “bite the bullet” predates the 1800s and the Americas, the more commonly accepted origin of the figurative phrase alludes to how early firearms functioned. Paper cartridges had previously been loaded with gunpowder and a ball. In the heat of battle, the soldier would rip open the tip of the paper cartridge with his teeth and pour the gunpowder and ball into his gun. As in the idiom, "bite the bullet," biting these cartridges and loading a gun during the adversity of battle undoubtedly represented tackling a challenging circumstance with courage. Yet, this practice caused an uprising in India’s history.

The Indian Rebellion of 1857 was a major uprising in India in 1857–1858 against the oppressive rule of the British East India Company. Also known as the Sepoy Mutiny or First War of Independence, Muslim and Hindu soldiers rebelled in defense of their religious beliefs as many were either imprisoned for refusing to fight or committed acts of mutiny against the British after learning that the paper cartridges were soaked and coated in either beef or pork grease. As Hindu soldiers do not eat cows because they consider them to be sacred, and Muslims are forbidden to eat pork, biting the bullet casing would violate their religious beliefs. Therefore, if they “bit the bullet” they would be doing something they were not comfortable with.

Examples in Literature

The known first written account using the figurative phrase “bite the bullet” as a literary device has been attributed to Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 novel The Light that Failed. He writes, “‘Steady, Dickie, steady!’ said the deep voice in his ear, and the grip tightened. ‘Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid,'” While there was no literal bullet involved, it alludes meaning to accept the inevitable impending hardship and endure the resulting pain with courage, steadfastness, and conviction.

Other Examples

Even today, people still use the idiom “bite the bullet” in everyday conversation as a figure of speech. While many no longer consider the origin of this phrase, most understand its contextual meaning. Here are some ways “bite the bullet” can be used in everyday situations and conversations.

Mother: The dentist said our daughter needs braces.

Father: How much will it cost us?

Mother: It won’t be cheap, even after what the insurance pays.

Father: Well, we are just going to have the bite the bullet and spend the money anyway.

More Examples:

  • I don’t want to take another math class, but I will have to bite the bullet and enroll in college algebra if I want to finish my degree.
  • I forgot to pay the electric bill on time. I will have to bite the bullet and pay the late fee.
  • My company has booked flights to attend a conference. I am terrified of flying. I am going to have to bite the bullet and conquer my fear of flying if I want to keep my job.
  • Jamie was pulled over for speeding. He will have to bite the bullet and pay the speeding ticket.

Word Phrases with the Same or Similar Meaning

  • face the music (idiom)
  • pay the piper (idiom)
  • suck it up (idiom)
  • have no choice

Reader Response

  • How would you use the idiom “bite the bullet” in a sentence?
  • Write a short character dialog in the comment section using the idiom "bite the bullet."
  • Are there any other words or word phrases you prefer to use instead of "bite the bullet" that has the same meaning?

Works Cited

Boston, Christine. “Biting the Bullet? Analyzing the Authenticity of “Bitten” Civil War Bullets.” Transactions of the Missouri Academy of Science. vol. 48, 2021, pp. 11-16. doi:10.30956/MAS-34.

DeRegnaucourt, T. The Archaeology of Camp Still-water: Wayne’s March to Fallen Timbers, July 28, 1794. Arcanum, Ohio: Upper Miami Valley Archaeological Research Museum. 1995.

Simms, J. R. Frontiersmen of New York. Albany: Riggs Publishing Co. 1882.

Sivilich, D. M. Analyzing Musket Balls to Interpret a Revolutionary War Site. Historical Archaeology, pp. 101-109, 1996.

Spalding, James C. “Loyalist as Royalist, Patriot as Puritan: The American Revolution as a Repetition of the English Civil Wars.” Church History, vol. 45, no. 3, 1976, pp. 329–340., doi:10.2307/3164267.

Stark, C., & Stark, J. Memoir and Official Correspondence of Gen. John Stark, with Notices of Several Other Officers of the Revolution. Concord: G. Parker Lyon. 1860.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Linda Sarhan

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