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Posts Tagged ‘bite the bullet’

Bite The Bullet

Posted by Admin on January 22, 2022

When there’s an impending or unpleasant decision that needs to be made and you know that whatever you decide will cause you some degree of pain or discomfort, you make the decision and deal with the consequences. What you have done is, in the opinion of many, is to bite the bullet.

There’s an urban myth that claims the idiom comes from American Civil War battlefield surgeries where procedures weren’t done under very sanitary conditions, where anesthetics didn’t exist (unless you count hard liquor), and where doctors weren’t always of the highest calibre. None of that is correct.

Ether and chloroform were introduced and used as anesthetics in 1846, and historical data indicates that the U.S. military had surgeons using ether on the battlefield during surgeries as early as 1849 which is, as you know, well before the start of the American Civil War in 1861.

But more importantly, bullets used during the American Civil War were made of lead and anyone biting down on one hard enough would have broken a number of teeth. If the pain was intense, the person would certainly cry out which would most likely result in swallowing the bullet that was allegedly being used as a way to endure the pain. In other words, there would be no reason for someone to bite a bullet –– never mind the bullet — while undergoing a medical procedure on the battlefield.

If anything would be given for a patient to bite, it would have been a leather strap which would not shatter any teeth, which could not be swallowed if the patient cried out in pain, and which was more likely to be used for pain control if there was no ether available for anesthesia purposes.

This means the urban myth cannot be correct in its assertion as to the origin of the idiom.

We know that Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) used the expression in his novel The Light That Failed published in 1891 but serialized in several newspapers in 1890. In the 14 December 1890 edition of The Post Dispatch newspaper of St. Louis (MO), that installment of the story included this passage.

“My God! I’m blind! I’m blind, and the darkness will never go away.” He made as if to leap from the bed, but Torpenhow’s arms were round him, and Torpenhow’s chin was on his shoulder, and his breath was squeezed out of him. He could only gasp, “Blind!” and wriggle feebly.

“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.”

Idiomation decided to research this idiom from both directions at this point which meant pinpointing the exact date cartridge bullets were invented, which was in 1586. The cartridge bullet was made of a musket ball and a black powder charge, and wrapped in strong cartridge paper. Whoever was shooting the musket bit off the bullet with his teeth, kept the musket ball in his mouth, poured the rest of the cartridge down the muzzle, then added the musket ball, and finally tamped everything down with a ramrod.

A well-trained soldier could get off three to four rounds in one minute which was important when engaged in battle which was, by virtue of being a battle, unpleasant but necessary.

This means no one was biting the bullet before 1586, but that doesn’t mean the idiom can be pegged at 1586 because it can’t be.

In 1796, Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue defined what a nightingale was when it came to soldiers by stating the following:

Nightingale. 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.

This indicates that chewing the bullet and biting the bullet are identical in terms of what these idioms mean. It also means that sometime between 1796 and 1890, the word chew was replaced by the word bite.

In Chapter III titled The Travellers of the posthumously published and absolutely unfinished 1867 novel Denis Duval by British novelist, author, and illustrator William Makepeace Thackery (12 August 1811 – 24 December 1863), the author makes use of the idiom thusly:

And that story was quickly told over the little town, and when we went to church next Sunday, Monsieur Borel preached a sermon which made all the congregation look to us, and poor Mother sat boiling red like a lobster fresh out of the pot. I did not quite know what I had done : I know what Mother was giving me for my pains, when our poor patient, entering the room, hearing, I suppose, the hissing of the stick (and never word from me — I used to bite the bullet, and hold my tongue), rushed into the room, whisked the cane out of Mother’s hand, flung her to the other end of the room with a strength quite surprising, and clasped me up in her arms and began pacing up and down the room, and glaring at Mother.

This passage would put the incident at somewhere in the 1820s.

As the research continued, however, Idiomation found another meaning for bullet and bite that seemed to fit the situation. In the third edition of “The Sportsman’s Dictionary: Or The Gentleman’s Companion: For Town and Country” published in 1785 the spirit of biting the bullet presented itself.

Your rod and line must be both long and strong, with a running plummet on the line, and let a little bit of lead be placed a foot or more above the hook, to keep the bullet from falling on it ; for the worm will be at the bottom, where they always bite, and when the fish takes the bait, you plummet will lie, and not choak him ; and by the bending of the rod you may know when he bites, as also with your hand you will feel him make a strong snatch, then strike, and you will rarely fail if you play him well and leave him ; but in short, if you manage him not desterously he will break your line.

It would appear that this would be the waiting for a fish to bite the bullet and subsequently suffering the consequences therein.

Similar advice was found in “The Complete Angler: Or Contemplative Man’s Recreation; Being a Discourse on Rivers, Fish-Ponds, Rish, and Fishing” written by Isaac Walton and Charles Cotton, Esquire, published a year earlier. Interestingly enough, this advice and the use of a bullet to entice a fish to bite was also found in “Systema Agriculturae: The Mystery of Husbandry Discovered” and according to the book, published for the common good by the author himself, J. W. Gent in 1675.

Even “The Experienced Angler: Or Angling Improv’d Bowing a General Discourse of Angling” by Richard Marriot whose third edition published in 1668 shared similar advice getting fish to bite the bullet … or at least the hook that was there for the fish to bite because of the bullet.

That being said, Idiomation has not yet found a definitive link between the idiom and fishing, and so that foray down the rabbit hole (so to speak) was shut down at that point.

The earliest published version of this is from the novel Denis Duval which puts biting the bullet to the 1820s which is a mere generation away from Francis Grose’s definition which speaks of chewing the bullet.

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