Have you ever been told to “bite the bullet”? If so, in that moment, your mind probably started to imagine your teeth chomping down on a round of ammunition—after all, the phrase paints a vivid picture that’s hard not to let pop into your head. How did you feel then? How do you feel now, reading this and thinking about the very act? You want to squirm in your seat, right? Of course, it’s only a figure of speech, with the speaker not intending you to actually munch on a lead bullet. But your likely reaction to the idea of doing so leads us to the meaning of this common idiomatic expression. Keep reading.
What Does Bite the Bullet Mean?
If you wince or flinch when hearing or reading the phrase bite the bullet, it makes sense—and you’re not alone! Biting down on a bullet would be incredibly painful and unpleasant. And that gets at the definition of this idiomatic expression: to endure an uncomfortable situation.
Most often, the phrase is used to describe a difficult situation that simply can’t be avoided. Maybe you put it off for a while, but eventually it must be done. In other words, it’s typically used to describe something you really don’t want to do, because it’s unpleasant in one way or another, but that you ultimately have to go through with. When you bite the bullet, you accept the inevitable and handle the resulting pain or discomfort as best as you can. In this way, bite the bullet further means to endure an undesirable event with courage, strength, and fortitude—to behave bravely in the face of challenging circumstances.
Of course, the types of things you don’t want to do vary widely, and may not actually be physically painful or all that difficult. Sometimes the expression is used hyperbolically, or to exaggerate or overstate the truth. For instance, maybe you really hate doing the laundry. While an “uncomfortable” action for you, it’s not painful or difficult in the same way as, say, having to get a root canal or even telling someone news that will disappoint them. Yet, the expression can be used in all of these scenarios.
Here are some example sentences using the idiomatic phrase bite the bullet:
- After determining he was lost and couldn’t find the historic site on his own, Bill had to bite the bullet and stop and ask for directions.
- In her last semester, Rachel knew she had to bite the bullet and enroll in the math class she’d been dreading taking.
- It was time for Wes to bite the bullet, throw out his favorite boots, and buy a new pair; afterall, the soles were worn thin and there were holes in the leather.
- Mary didn’t want to tell her family she lost her job, but she had to bite the bullet and come clean.
- She hated visiting the dentist, but her tooth was throbbing so she had to bite the bullet and go.
The Origins of Bite the Bullet
Although we don’t know for sure the exact origins of this expression, there are several theories.
One holds that, before anesthesia was available during surgery, patients would be given a wooden stick or strip of leather to bite down on. The purpose was twofold: to keep them somewhat distracted from the intense pain and also to keep them from biting their tongues. It’s thought that on the battlefield when perhaps wood or leather wasn’t available, soldiers may have instead been given a bullet to clench in their teeth. Because lead, the main material in a bullet, is soft, the doctors knew it wouldn’t break their patients’ teeth and thus be an acceptable alternative.
Another thought is that because pieces of wood or wooden sticks are called billets, the phrase could have begun as bite the billet—never referring to bullets at all—yet, over time, been modified and changed to bite the bullet. This is speculation, though, as there don’t seem to be historical records of the phrase bite the bullet.
However, there does appear to be early evidence of use of the similar phrases bite the cartridge and chew a bullet. The latter dates to the late 1700s in the text A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue by Francis Grose. In it, he defines the term nightingale and uses the phrase in his definition:
“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.”
The versions bite the cartridge and bite the bullet as we know it today may date to the Indian Rebellion of 1857. At that time, rifles used greased paper cartridges that needed to be bitten to be opened and their powder released. The grease was some kind of animal fat. The Sepoys, native Indian fighters who were recruited to fight with the British army, objected to biting the cartridge based on religious reasons; those who were Hindu didn’t want to eat cow fat, while those who were Muslim didn’t want to ingest pig fat. But as they were recruited to fight, they may have been told they had to, and to go ahead and “bite the cartridge” or “bite the bullet.”
We do know with some certainty that the first record of the phrase bite the bullet used in a figurative sense—with the meaning we know today: to endure hardship with fortitude—is attributable to Rudyard Kipling in his novel The Light That Failed, which was published in 1891. He writes:
“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 this excerpt, Dickie is the novel’s main character, Dick Heldar, a painter who is losing his eyesight and going blind, no doubt an unpleasant and painful thing to endure.
Kipling’s novel isn’t the only literary use of the phrase around that time, however. Author P.G. Wodehouse included it in dialogue in his 1923 work The Inimitable Jeeves. Here, Bertie Wooster is speaking to the titular character Jeeves:
“Brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I’ve bad news for you.”
As you can see from a look back at the origins of bite the bullet, over time the phrase went from being used in a literal sense (actually putting a bullet in between your teeth and clenching down) to a figurative sense (enduring a challenging or uncomfortable situation with courage).
Bite the bullet is an idiom. It would be difficult to determine its figurative meaning just by looking at the words that comprise it. Indeed, that is the case for most idioms. Put simply, idiomatic phrases don’t mean what they appear to mean. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
When it comes to bite the bullet, you now know that it is an idiom, and that when you hear or see this phrase, it is meant in a figurative, rather than literal, sense.
Synonyms for Bite the Bullet
There are many other ways to describe a difficult situation one simply must face or to encourage someone to go ahead and complete an action that is uncomfortable but that must be done. Here are a few synonyms or near-synonyms (which may not be an exact match or replacement for the phrase but do express a similar sentiment) for the idiomatic expression bite the bullet; some of these synonyms are also idioms themselves:
- Face the music
- Suck it up
- Grit your teeth
- Grin and bear it
- Tough it out
- Get down to business
- Face up to it
- Cut to the chase
- Take the plunge
- Go for it / Just go for it
- Be brave
- Show courage
- Accept the challenge
- Live with
- Reconcile oneself
- Resign oneself
- Come to grips with
- Have / display a stiff upper lip
The idiomatic expression bite the bullet means to endure a situation that is, in some way or another, unpleasant or uncomfortable. It’s used to describe an action that you don’t want to take but that you need to complete; it may be an action that you put off for some time and then have to force yourself to do because it’s necessary. What’s more, it means not just that you face this difficult situation, but that you accept whatever discomfort may come from it and handle it with courage and bravery, with fortitude.