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What Does the Popular Idiom 'Bite the Bullet' Truly Mean?

Vrinda Varnekar Jun 18, 2019
Bite the bullet seems like a rather violent idiom, doesn't it? After all, why would anyone ask anyone else to bite a bullet? But it does not quite mean what the words imply. Like all idioms, this too has a hidden meaning. Intrigued?

Did You Know?

Some theories state that 'bite the bullet' actually originated from 'bite the billet'. Billets were wooden sticks given to conscious patients to bite when they were being operated on. However, there is not enough evidence to prove this claim.
There are thousands of idioms in every language, phrases that literally or figuratively mean something very meaningful. Idioms add a little dramatic flair to the way a language, any language, is used.
The English language enables us to use so many different idioms in our everyday lives that they have somehow now become an integral part of the spoken language of so many people all over the world. Some idioms are easy to understand, while some may not be that obvious.
Bite the bullet is one of the not-so-easily-understood ones, though it is pretty commonly used. Read on to know more about the meaning and the origin of this idiom.

Bite the Bullet: Meaning

The meaning of this idiom is easy to understand, if you come across it in the right context. Bite the bullet means to tolerate something unpleasant or painful, and accept it the way it is. According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the idiom is defined thus: "to force yourself to do something unpleasant or difficult, or to be brave in a difficult situation."
Like we said earlier, the meaning of this idiom is easy to understand once you come across it in the right context. Hence, we're going to give you an example of biting the bullet so as to help you understand perfectly.
An old farmer and his wife are facing tough times, financially. Try as they might, they cannot afford handling their farm anymore, and are forced to sell it to someone who will make newer use of it.
The farmer's wife is very upset about this, and the farmer tells her, "I know you're very upset about having to let go of our farm. But times are tough, so we're just going to have to bite the bullet, aren't we?"
Here, he is telling her that they have to face the unpleasant situation of selling their farm, accept it, and get on with their lives.

Bite the Bullet: Origin

While it is true that the origin of this idiom dates back a long time, there are several claims about when it was exactly used for the first time, and how it really originated. All theories seem equally possible, and though we may not know which one to place our bets on, they certainly make a very interesting read.
✦ In the time before anesthesia was introduced in the world of surgery, it would be rather difficult to perform operations on wounded people, especially soldiers injured in war.
If the patient was conscious, he more than often wouldn't be able to bear the pain, and his constant shouting and screaming would distract the surgeons trying to treat his battlefield injuries.
Hence, soldiers were given bullets to bite on during operations to conceal their pain, not distract the surgeon, as also a measure against the patient biting off his own tongue. Sounds grisly, doesn't it? But it was quite inevitable.
Some historians claim that sometimes the patients were deliberately doused with chloroform or another strong drug which would make them unconscious. Before chloroform was discovered, whiskey did the same job. So, it is possible that the idiom originated from this biting the bullet practice.
✦ Another claim of the origin dates back to the uprising in British India in 1857. Indian soldiers, also known as sepoys, were recruited in the British army in India. The introduction of a new kind of rifle demanded that the soldiers bite down greased-paper cartridges to release their powder, and this raised objection by the sepoys for religious reasons.
These greased-paper cartridges were often lined with animal fat, namely, the fat of cows and pigs. Hinduism regards the cow as a sacred animal, while Islam prohibits the consumption of pork, which made these cartridges rightly objectionable to the Hindu and Muslim sepoys.
Their objections, however, were brushed aside by the authorities, and they were told to keep their religious qualms aside and bite the bullet. So, this theory too is a probable source for the idiom, though it is a debated issue.
✦ Figuratively, bite the bullet means to face a difficult and unpleasant situation head on, and wear a facade of bravery during an ordeal. Rudyard Kipling's novel, The Light That Failed (1891) mentioned the expression when there was no actual biting of a bullet in that context.
"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,". The grip could draw no closer. Both men were breathing heavily. - Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed.
Most experts believe that the figurative meaning of biting the bullet originated from Kipling's book. As time passed, it became a commonly used idiom in different literary works, and has come to mean what we believe today.
So that was all about the meaning of bite the bullet. From the gory days of surgery without anesthesia to keeping a brave face in tough times, this little idiom has certainly come a long, long way.