What Does the Saying “Bite the Bullet” Really Mean?

If you've ever chosen to "bite the bullet" you know that you might have had to endure some pain, but that there wasn't an actual bullet involved, so why do we say that?

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fake model teeth biting a silver colored bulletMoussa81/Getty Images

You’ve probably been told to “bite the bullet” at least once in your life. It’s common knowledge that this saying doesn’t actually mean to bite down on a hard bullet but instead, to have courage and force yourself through a difficult or uncomfortable situation. For example, around the holidays you might find yourself saying, “I really don’t like having the in-laws over for more than a few days, but I’ll just have to bite the bullet.” Read up on these everyday phrases with surprisingly dark origins.

The origin of “bite the bullet”

So where did this idiom originate? There are actually a few different theories about where the saying comes from. The most well known is that before there were anesthetics and soldiers had to endure painful procedures during the war, they would bite a bullet to distract them from the pain and keep them from biting their tongue or screaming. Francis Grose describes this in his 1796 bookA Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue.

“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.”

Another theory stems from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The powder cartridge used for the rifles had a paper cartridge that needed to be bitten off by the soldier before they loaded it into their gun. When Sepoys—native Indian troops of Muslims and Hindus—heard the cartridges and bullets were greased with pork and beef fat, they refused to fight because it is against their religion to ingest cow fat. Therefore if they “bit the bullet” they would be doing something they weren’t comfortable with. Here’s what another strange saying “close, but no cigar” really means.

When “bite the bullet” was first used as an idiom

The first known time this phrase was used as an idiom was in 1891. Rudyard Kipling wrote, “‘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,'” in his book The Light That Failed. Another more recent example was in The Inimitable Jeeves in 1923 saying “Brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I’ve bad news for you.” Now that you know where the phrase “bite the bullet” comes from, here are the origins of other commonly used idioms.

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Morgan Cutolo
Morgan is the Assistant Digital Managing Editor at Reader’s Digest. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016 where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. When she’s not writing for rd.com or keeping the 650+ pieces of content our team produces every month organized, she likes watching HGTV, going on Target runs, and searching through Instagram to find new corgi accounts to follow.