We’ve all faced those unavoidable challenges in life where we’ve had to bite the bullet, so to speak. The phrase is not uncommon and is used today worldwide to discuss everything from measures taken against global warming to the philosophy of generative linguistics. More literally, it might call attention to a 45 year-old male who necessitated aggressive treatment for lead poisoning after the actual ingestion of 206 bullets. But where did the phrase originate and what does it really mean?
According to the American Heritage Dictionary, to bite the bullet is to “behave bravely or stoically when facing pain or a difficult situation”.
First recorded by Rudyard Kipling in his 1891 novel “The Light that Failed”, the phrase takes on a metaphorical meaning of fortitude:
“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.” (152).
Though no actual bullet was present, the idea of showing courage in times of despair is aptly illustrated by the thought of showing teeth and biting a lead bullet, a romanticized vision of advancing unthreatened. Though this is the first written account of the phrase, speculations are made as to how far back the idiom actually dates.
A more common explanation derives the practice of physically biting a bullet from the early 1800’s, a time before effective anesthesia was administered. Patients were allegedly given a lead bullet to clench between barred teeth as a way to cope with extraordinary pain of surgical procedure without an anesthetic, preventing the patient from biting off his own tongue. Though a bullet seems like a viable, impromptu battlefield option – malleable as not to break teeth, a leather strap or piece of wood was more likely used and is depicted in every historical photograph and reference.
The practice, often associated with the American Civil War seems factually inadequate at best, as evidence suggests the use of ether and chloroform with their invention in 1847, fourteen years before the Civil War began in 1861. Up until that point, the best remedy for having a leg sawed off was a stiff drink and some gut-deep courage.
By 1926 the phrase had found its way from bloodstained battlefields into the homes of English aristocracy. English novelist and humorist P.G. Wodehouse’s famously funny character Bertie Wooster tells his valet Jeeves, “So brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I have bad news for you”, popularizing the phrase further.
Regardless of the beginnings of such a popular idiom, we all can relate to the feeling of sucking it up and biting the bullet.