We say we “bite the bullet” when we have to do something we’d really rather not do. However, did people in the past literally bite bullets, or has it always been just a metaphor?
The phrase “bite the bullet” doesn’t have a definitive origin. According to a myth, soldiers in the Civil War were biting bullets while being operated on without anesthetics. Flogged soldiers could also have bitten bullets to ease their physical pain.
Keep reading to learn more about the history of the phrase. I will share some of the different theories about the origin, as well as discuss bullets, anesthetics, novels, wars, and rebellions on our way to uncovering the source of bìting bullets.
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The Earliest Documented Use of the Phrase “Bite the Bullet”
“Bite the bullet” first appeared in Rudyard Kipling’s “The Light that Failed,” a novel written in 1891. Victorian values such as stoicism and self-control resonate with the phrase. Although war is a predominant theme in the novel, the bullet is clearly used metaphorically.
The main character of the novel is Dick, who is an artist and a soldier. In chapter 6, he loses his sight. Amidst his despair, he hears the following comforting words from his best friend:
“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.”
Besides the men’s military background and the recurring war theme, there are no literal bullets in this part of the novel. Therefore, this was the first time “biting the bullet” was used to signify “bracing up through hardship.”
No wonder this phrase began its written life in the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).
Manliness in Victorian times was based on character, which was considered to be the ability to persevere in difficult times. Self-discipline and putting public needs before oneself was considered the greatest virtue, whether from men or women.
Men were raised to “bite the bullet,” and they were subsequently praised for it.
This phrase is also later mentioned in the 1923 novel The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse. The following sentence from the novel contains the modern-day meaning of “bite the bullet”:
“Brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I’ve bad news for you.”
Theories on the Origin of “Bite the Bullet”
The phrase is thought to have been inspired by the military. Some theories say that it originated from the Civil War surgery practices. Other theories refer to the corporal punishments of British Army soldiers in the 18th century.
The phrase could have also been used during the Indian Rebellion.
The most popular theory is that the phrase originated from medical practices in the Civil War (1861-1865). It’s thought that soldiers were operated on without the use of anesthetics. Therefore, the only thing offered to them to ease their agony was a bullet that they could bite down on.
The argument supporting this theory is that bullets were readily available on the battlefield.
Therefore, if the patients had to bite down on anything, it might as well have been a bullet. Most bullets are made of lead. More specifically, the bullet’s core is made of this malleable metal that can easily be scratched and bitten.
Chewing is related to feeding, which in turn is connected to safety. Considering the positive psychological effects of chewing, it’s not strange to think that biting bullets would help a suffering patient.
Most academic and online sources support the Civil War theory. If you research the phrase, you’ll find that it dates from the days before anesthetics. These various sources helped create a cultural and social lore about the phrase’s origin. However, we can’t yet trust our resources without investigating further.
There are two primary reasons one should not believe that soldiers were biting on bullets:
- At the time of the Civil War, different forms of anesthetic were used, including ether and, by 1847, chloroform. In fact, there are records of using mandrake as an anesthetic as early as the 15th century BC. Although the use of anesthetics was not perfected until 1877, it was still a better option for wounded soldiers than biting bullets.
- No evidence exists that Civil War-era medical procedures involved biting bullets. It might have happened sporadically, but it was definitely not a common practice in Civil War medicine. The bullets found with teeth marks were more likely chewed on by animals than people.
The Indian Rebellion
To bite or not to bite? This was the question Indian soldiers under British rule had to face when dealing with religiously offensive musket bullets.
Before the Crown assumed direct control of the country, the Indians were ruled by the East India Company. During that time, gunpowder was encased in paper greased with fat, so the Indian soldiers’ musket cartridges had to be bitten to be opened and used.
The problem was that the Indian soldiers, loyal to the British Empire, were either Hindus or Muslims, and the fat was typically either of pig or cow origin. No animal fat was allowed to come near their mouths if they were to go to Heaven.
The sepoys, as they were called, believed that this was another British provocation and an attempt to convert them to Christianity.
As a result, there was an uprising that led to the First War of Independence in 1857. Although the majority decided to bite the bullet and remain loyal to the Crown, the political situation did change, and the British Raj was formed.
We can only guess whether this was the original meaning of “bite the bullet.”
Corporal Punishment in the British Army
Soldiers usually get wounded in battle. However, in the 18th-century British Army, soldiers could be gravely injured or even killed due to flagellation. Flogging or whipping was a common practice intended to teach discipline and intentionally be cruel to set an example to the other soldiers.
During such practices, the punished soldier would often get open wounds, risk losing too much blood, or in the worst case, suffer from internal organ inflammation and die. The soldiers had no choice but to accept their punishment with as much dignity as possible.
Biting the bullet would have helped them see the flogging through.
In the 18th-century dictionary A Classical Dictionary Of The Vulgar Tongue, by Francis Grose, there’s an entry describing a suffering soldier who would “chew a bullet” to avoid crying out loud.
Nightingale is a soldier who sings out at the halberts. It’s a point of honor in some regiments, among grenadiers, never to cry out or become “nightingales” while under the discipline of the cat of nine tails, and to avoid this, they would chew a bullet.
The phrase “chew a bullet” describes acceptable soldier behavior and contrasts with the nightingale, a soldier crying for help instead of putting a brave face on and enduring the flogging.
The soldiers were flogged using a cat of nine tails until 1881 when corporal punishment in the Army was abolished.
It seems more plausible that corporal punishment gave birth to the phrase than unanesthetized surgeries. Biting the bullet is an act of manliness. The act could have been the soldiers’ last resort to keep their dignity and stop themselves from crying out loud, which is still insinuated in the meaning of this phrase.
Based on written historical evidence, we can conclude that the phrase “bite the bullet” originated in some form of military practice. Biting the bullet could have been a way to help wounded or punished soldiers push through the pain they endured.
Either way, using bullets to provide comfort instead of focusing on pain seems like a good idea and has apparently been used throughout the centuries to insinuate bravery through suffering.
- Academia: Oxford Dictionary of Idioms
- The Project Gutenberg: The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling
- Springer Link: The Victorian Novel and Masculinity
- Archive: Random House historical dictionary of American slang
- Encyclopedia Britannica: Alloy
- PDH Academy: The Preservation and Repair of Historic Stained and Leaded Glass
- Research Gate: Biting the Bullet? Analyzing the Authenticity of “Bitten” Civil War Bullets
- Bodmin Keep: To ‘Bite the Bullet’
- Science Direct: On the skin of a soldier: The story of flogging
- The Public Domain Review: A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue
- Jstor: Attempts To Abolish Branding And Flogging In The Army Of Victorian England Before 1881