Friday’s Phrase – “Bite the Bullet”

Welcome to the weekly series “Friday’s Phrase”. A whimsical and informative look at the idioms, phrases, proverbs and colloquialisms we commonly use, what they mean, and where they came from.

This week’s phrase:           “Bite the Bullet”

Thanks to ‘travellinstranger’ whose blog can be read at www.travellingstranger.com for this week’s phrase. A universal phrase that is rife with theories and stories of its history in our language, as is common with many phrases. We will inevitably, through the course of this series, run across phrases that are very specific and verifiable in their first use and origin. But it won’t be the majority. He might have done his homework here, as his suggestion is not one of these.

Current accepted meaning:

  1. To endure a painful or unpleasant experience that is seen as unavoidable.

 We all have to bite the bullet when it comes to paying taxes.

  1. Display courage; show a stiff upper lip.

“Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid!”

Historical Recorded Use:

‘Biting the bullet’ is first recorded in print as the definition of a ‘nightingale’ in Francis Grose’s, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1796, which states:

“Nightingale. 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.” (Here the word ‘chew’ is a direct correlation to the word ‘bite’.)

Being the first use in print is the only method of verifying origin sometimes. Even though it is widely understood that these phrases may have existed and been used in colloquial or regional language well before being committed to ink. And as we are not addressing the ‘mythology’ of word origins here, we will set this as our reference in investigating the etymology of the phrase.

Etymology:

Let’s tackle the numerous theories individually.

  1. The most frequently cited origin of the alleged ‘biting the bullet’ practice is the American Civil War. Although this sounds logical and believable. It is rather improbable, as effective anesthesia using ether and chloroform was introduced in 1846/47 and ether was issued to U.S. military surgeons as early as 1849 – well before the US Civil War began in 1861. Apart from the fact that this post-dates our first known use in print and cannot be the origin.
  1. Some scholars have suggested that, as wooden sticks are sometimes referred to as billets, patients undergoing surgery would be given a stick of wood or a pad of leather to bite on in order to concentrate their attention away from the pain and also to protect against biting their own tongues. This stick-biting practice might have first been called ‘biting the billet’, which was then modified to ‘biting the bullet’. As these type of word replacements often appear in phrases used over many generations, it was worth investigating. On the timeline, it is feasible we were biting on sticks long before we had invented the type of bullets our historical record signifies. But alas, I could find no record of the phrase ‘bite the billet’ in historical newspapers or other records, so it cannot be verified as the origin.
  1. The theory that the expression derived from incidents in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 has been postulated. When a new design of rifle was issued, which used greased paper cartridges that needed to be bitten to release their powder, the Sepoys (native Indian recruits) objected on religious grounds. The Hindus and Muslims both feared that the grease was made from cow fat or pig fat, restricted by their beliefs. The requirement that the Sepoys ignore their religious qualms and ‘bite the bullet’ is suggested as the source of the phrase. While the incidents were accurately recorded and a catalyst for the Indian Rebellion, our earlier citation date shows that they were not the source of this phrase.
  1. It was suggested by the 1975 movie, “Bite the Bullet”, that the phrase referred to using a shell casing to cover an aching tooth, especially one that had been broken, and where a nerve is exposed. In the film, the slug was removed from the bullet, the cap was hit to expend that charge, and the casing was cut down to allow it to sit level with the other teeth. Creative and ingenious, but not an origin story.

Conclusion:

Although the use of anesthetics eliminates the Civil War as the origin of the phrase, it is easy to see that the battlefield may have well been. It is a place where suffering pain and bullets come together. And if biting on sticks, leather, or cloth to bear pain is readily accepted, then biting a bullet may have well been an improvised battlefield replacement, as the lead is soft and would not break a person’s teeth. Certainly, it fits the timeline of our cited reference as bullets and pain both existed at the time.

We can say with certainty that we know the first use and meaning of the phrase. But, again, it is possible that this phrase was spoken, coined, or originated at a place and time far from the soldiers Grose is describing in the first written record.

Good choice my friend! It feels like this has been a long trip to nowhere. And only a brother biker can appreciate the beauty of that!

Bonus Phrase: (provided at no extra charge)

None this week because of length. You can complain directly to the submitter of this week’s phrase at www.travellingstranger.com.

Comments
4 Responses to “Friday’s Phrase – “Bite the Bullet””
  1. I’d always ‘believed’ that the phrase originated during a time of war, to aid wounded soldiers who were in pain as a place to focus rather than on the pain. You certainly did your research into all of the possibilities, and it made for good reading!

    As for a ‘trip to nowhere’, that idea isn’t familiar to only bikers. With many things in life, I think the journey is far more important than the destination.

    Looking forward to next Friday’s exploration!!!

  2. Cheers! Thanks for the mention and I’m impressed by the work put into the research.
    I enjoyed reading very much. 👍

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