It’s been a minute since I’ve done one of these Idiomatica posts, hasn’t it? The English language is filled with all sorts of curious idioms that may or may not make any logical sense whatsoever. Whether we want to batten down the hatches or run like stink, sometimes we just have to bite the bullet and get it done.

But wait. What does that even mean and where did the phrase “bite the bullet” even come from?

Meaning of Bite the Bullet

“Biting the bullet” usually refers to choosing to endure an unpleasant or painful experience and get it over with, because it’s something that you feel is inevitable and ultimately unavoidable. You don’t want to do this thing, and it’s something that you know won’t be comfortable, but you go ahead and do it anyway, because you feel like you must.

One example might be if you decide to drop out of college. You get the sense that your parents are going to be disappointed and this could escalate into quite the conflict. Even so, you decide to bite the bullet, pick up the phone, and call your folks to tell them the news.

Another example might be if your home is in need of some sort of repair. This happened to us last year when the central air conditioning system went on the fritz and we couldn’t figure out what went wrong. We could have scoured our way through Google and YouTube, trying to diagnose and repair the problem ourselves. However, we knew that we really knew nothing about this sort of thing. So, we bit the bullet and hired a professional. It wasn’t cheap, but it got fixed.

Idiom Origin Stories

There appear to be two main theories, both of which date back to around the late 1700s and mid 1800s.

  1. It’s a reference to the age before effective anesthesia when soldiers had to undergo painful surgeries or procedures. This is like biting down on a leather strap, except they’d literally bite down on a (somewhat soft) lead bullet. It may also be derived from the word billet, meaning a stick or a piece of wood. Bite the billet, as it were.
  2. In the British Empire in India, soldiers had to separate the casing from the bullet head manually. This was difficult to do, so they’d be told to “bite the bullet” to open the casing. Indian soldiers were hesitant to do this, because the casings were coated in animal fat and this may have been against their religion.

Which one sounds more reasonable to you?

An Uncomfortable Conclusion

In an ideal world, I’d be able to provide you with a definitive answer to these sorts of queries. Honestly, I’m really curious about these sorts of things and how these idioms came to be in the first place. Alas, like so many other turns of phrase, we’ll never be 100 percent certain why we talk about biting ammunition and how that relates to doing necessary, but unpleasant things. I guess I’ll just have to bite the bullet and hit publish.