Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Episode 206: Bite the Bullet


This week Shauna and Dan explore the phrase bite the bullet. We discover the predecessor phrase and debunk several origination myths for this one. Bonus: Valets, Sepoys, and Artificial Intelligence.


Click to read the show notes.


Bunny Trails: A Word History Podcast
Episode 206: Bite the Bullet
Record Date: September 10, 2023
Air Date: September 13, 2023


Welcome to Bunny Trails, a whimsical adventure of idioms and other turns of phrase.

I’m Shauna Harrison

And I’m Dan Pugh

Each week we take an idiom or other turn of phrase and try to tell the story from its entry into the English language, to how it’s used today.

Opening Hook
Have you ever been faced with a difficult situation and it doesn’t seem like you have many options? Especially if you are the one everyone else seems to be looking up to during the difficult time. And you realize you just have to face it. Even though it may be hard. And in English, we would say, you just have to bite the bullet.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to bite the bullet means:

to behave courageously or stoically; to avoid showing fear or distress; (in later use) to brace oneself in anticipation of an unpleasant experience, esp. one resulting from a situation which can no longer be avoided.
End Quote

They also note it comes from the practice of giving soldiers a bullet to bite on to help them bear severe pain without crying out and points to a 1788 work with the phrase, chew a bullet.

So let’s start with chew a bullet. The first time I found that phrase being used in a figurative sense was in 1608, but it was being used in a different way.

This is from The Plays of John Day Part III, Humour Out Of Breath, by John Day. 1608.
This dialogue comes from Act Two, Scene 1 with Octavio and Aspero talking.

Octavio: …I shall not kill him?
Aspero: I’d be thy death first
Octavio: Yet, you say you hate him.
Aspero: Equal with my shame.
Octavio: Make chew a bullet, then.
Aspero: No, though my state with poverty be tainted, Mine acts and honor shall live still acquainted.
End Quote

So that was definitely not the way the Oxford English Dictionary was referencing.

Let’s jump forward to a dictionary in 1788, the same one the OED references.

From A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 2nd Edition, by Francis Grose. 1788.
This is found in the entry for 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; so avoid which, they chew a bullet.
End Quote

Note: This link is to the 3rd edition, 1796. But Dan has a copy of the 2nd edition, 1788 which includes the same entry. The entry does not appear in the first edition of the work, which was published 1785.

This one is a bit vague. It likely means they would bite down on a bullet or other hard thing to keep them from screaming aloud. But it could also mean they would hasten their own end by gunshot. But reading another of Francis Grose’ work, also published posthumously in 1796, I think it is more likely to mean they bit down on something.

This work is titled The Olio: Being a Collection of Essay, Dialogues, letters, biographical sketches, anecdotes, pieces of poetry, parodies, bon mots, epigrams, epitaphs, etc. Chiefly original, 2nd edition. By Francis Grose. 1796

This is from a story called White Hall Eclogue, a parody on the Eclogues (or short poems) of Theocritus, Virgil, Pope, and other pastoral poets.

There are two terms in here the author felt necessary to explain.
Smacking calf-skin means kissing the prayer-book in taking an oath.
And Harman is the cant term for constable.

The guard-house, and the cat of nine tales then
Seem’d unavoidable; but generous Nan
From off a neighb’ring hedge supply’d my want!
Poor girl! She got in trouble by the act
But smacking the calf-skin to an alibi
I serv’d her in her turn, and brought her off
If ever I Peg’s kindness do forget,
May I be doom’d to an eternal drill;
And when unto the halberts I am brought,
May I be flogg’d by a left-hand drum,
When I leave Nan in the vile Harman’s hands
Or e’er her love forget, may ev’ry day
Prove a review; or when the galling cat
Harrows my bloody back, then may I want
The comfort of a bullet for the chew
End Quote

So I feel comfortable that they mean biting down on something here, which does make chew a bullet a predecessor phrase of bite the bullet as we would say now. And as we saw before, the Oxford English Dictionary would seem to agree, as they also cite the 1788 work.

And we know that biting on something hard was a practice used in the early 1800s. Here’s a footnote on a story where a soldier was to be physically punished and was offered a leaden bullet. This is from the Schoolmaster, and Edinburgh Weekly Magazine, 4 August 1832.

In suffering this punishment, a leaden bullet is sometimes kept in the mouth, that the strong exertion of the teeth on this substance may deaden the sensation of excruciating pain, and perhaps to keep the soldier from biting through his own tongue in his agony.
End Quote

So far, the history and reasoning track for biting down on a bullet to help get through a physical pain.

However, in between this timeframe, there was also a literal chewing of the bullet for a different reason, which seemed to be to mix the ball being fired with sand. This was an outlawed practice by most as a form of poison, but it is referenced a few times in the early 1700s. However, since this is a literal usage, we won’t go into further detail here. We will, however, talk more about it in the behind the scenes section, available to all Patrons at

Let’s move to when we first see the current version of the phrase, bite the bullet, in print.

This is out of the Bombay Times, 24 February 1844 and the citation is coming to us from the Oxford English Dictionary.

He in reality bellows while he would have the world believe he is biting the bullet.
End Quote

This comes to us from The Moral Aspects of Medical Life, by Karl Friedrich H. Marx translated from the German by James Machness, M.D. 1846. The german work was published in 1844, the same year as our previous citation.  

In thus running the gauntlet of reproaches on the one hand, and envious joy on the other, he must sustain himself by his conscious innocence, as men who are undergoing operations or suffering pain bite a bullet to prevent them crying out.
End Quote

Link to original German work:

Just a few decades later, we find the phrase in The Works of William Makepeace Thackeray, Volume 11, by Denis Duval. 1869.

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)...
End Quote

Next up is a work that is often cited as the origin of the phrase, though I feel comfortable in saying it definitely is not the origin since there are examples of it over 50 years prior to this work being published. This is from Rudyard Kipling’s The Light That Failed, published in 1896. This is a scene in which Dick is on his deathbed and seemingly re-living earlier times.

I sha’n’t! The voice rose to a wail. 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 Trpenbow’s arms were round him, and Torpenhow’s chin was on his shoulder., and his breath was squeezed our 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.
End Quote

Here’s another example, from P.G. Wodhouse’s 1923 work, The Inimitable Jeeves. To our Patron Jan, there will be a bit of a spoiler here and we know you are working through some of these books now, so you can skip the next 45 seconds or so if you want.

“Young Mr. Little has been trying frequently during the afternoon to reach you on the telephone, sir,” said Jeeves that night, when I got home.

“I’ll bet he has,” I said. I had sent poor old Bingo an outline of the situation by messenger-boy shortly after lunch.

“He seemed a trifle agitated.”

“I don’t wonder. Jeeves,” I said, “so brace up and bite the bullet. I’m afraid I’ve bad news for you.”

“That scheme of yours—reading those books to old Mr. Little and all that—has blown out a fuse.”

“They did not soften him?”

“They did. That’s the whole bally trouble. Jeeves, I’m sorry to say that fiancĂ©e of yours—Miss Watson, you know—the cook, you know—well, the long and the short of it is that she’s chosen riches instead of honest worth, if you know what I mean.”


“She’s handed you the mitten and gone and got engaged to old Mr. Little!”
End Quote

Before you go feeling bad for Jeeves, he saw this coming and was kind of hoping it would happen, as he had his eye on another lady.

Here’s one from East Liverpool, Ohio USA, out of The Potter’s Herald, 9 November 1950. This is a quote from Roy Blough of President Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers speaking on the concern for a spiral of prices and wages due to the expansion of defense production in the post-WW2 era.

Said Blough: We the public as a whole will either bear the taxes or bear the inflation. It is better to bite the bullet now while the threat is upon us.
End Quote

Before we move on to some more modern uses, I do want to address two other other origin stories.

The first claims the phrase originated in 1857 in India. I’m going to read from a ThoughtCo piece on the events that are often attached to the phrase. I will note, this article does not talk about the phrase at all, but is instead a history piece about the event.

The immediate cause of the Indian Revolt of 1857, or Sepoy Mutiny, was a seemingly minor change in the weapons used by the British East India Company's troops. The Company had upgraded to the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle, which used greased paper cartridges. In order to open the cartridges and load the rifles, soldiers (known as sepoys) had to bite into the paper and tear it with their teeth.

Rumors began to spread in 1856 that the grease on the cartridges was made from a mixture of beef tallow and pork lard. Eating cows, of course, is forbidden by Hinduism, while consumption of pork is forbidden by Islam. Thus, by making one small change to its munitions, the British managed to greatly offend both Hindu and Muslim soldiers.

The sepoys' revolt began in Meerut, the first area to receive the new weapons. British manufacturers soon changed the cartridges in an attempt to calm the spreading anger among the soldiers, but this move backfired. The switch only confirmed, in the minds of the sepoys, that the original cartridges had indeed been greased with cow and pig fat.
End Quote

It is easy to see how one might hear about this event and wonder if that was the origin of the phrase. But as we’ve already discussed, it wasn’t. And also, since the ThoughtCo piece grossly oversimplified the causes of the Sepoy Mutiny, I’ll turn to a quick list from which notes just the naming convention of this event is contentious. But I’ll just read their bullet points:


The main causes of the Sepoy Mutiny may be summarised as:

  • Sepoys were unhappy with the pay inequality compared to British soldiers.
  • Sepoys were suspicious that rifle cartridges used animal fats they could not touch as part of their religious beliefs.
  • The sepoys' unwillingness to serve abroad.
  • Indian princes had lost their states or had to pay high protection fees to the EIC.
  •  An overtaxed population
  •  Concerns that traditional Indian cultural practices were under threat.
  •  Concerns for traditional Indian manufacturing industries facing unfair competition from EIC imports.
  •  British snobbery and institutional racism.

End Quote

With that covered, let’s move to the second commonly cited origin story, which claims the phrase started during the American Civil War, which ran 1861 to 1865. Clearly, the phrase was in use long before that particular war. And whether or not soldiers were biting bullets for pain is a bit of a contested topic, too.

From the Trans-Mississippi Theater’s Virtual Museum, on a gallery exhibit of “bitten” bullets:

A common myth from the Civil War is that bullets were used for patients to bite during surgery. On the contrary, both chloroform and ether were available for administration before surgery. These bullets clearly show indications of teeth marks; however, the marks were made by hogs foraging for food on a field after a battle.
End Quote

Of course, I’m sure in a pinch anything will do to bite down on, so I’m sure it happened during the American Civil War, but this site seems to suggest it may not have been the regular practice that the internet claims.

Let’s move onto some more modern takes on this phrase, but first a quick word of thanks to our sponsors.

A Quick Thank You
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Modern Uses

1975 Movie
First up is Bite the Bullet, a 1975 movie. Here’s the synopsis from Google.

A disparate group of individuals enter a horse race through 700 miles of the Wild West to win a large cash prize. The contestants include two ex-Rough Riders, an aging cowboy who refuses to slow down, an inexperienced youth, a Mexican, an Englishman and a woman. Over the course of the trek, the riders begin to shed their biases toward gender, race and age, and appreciate one another.
End Quote

This American Western takes place in 1906. It stars Gene Hackman, Candice Bergen, and James Coburn, with support from Ian Bennen, Jan Michael Vincent, Ben Johnson, and Dabney Coleman.

We’ll link to the trailer on the show notes, available at and on our Patreon.

1977 Song
Next is a song by Neil Young & Crazy Horse and the Bullets off the 1977 album American Stars ‘N Bars. Here’s the chorus:

Carolina queen
She's a walking love machine
I'd like to make her scream
When I bite the bullet
Bite the bullet
End Quote

2008 Book
There are a plethora of books called Bite the Bullet. So I’ll include a few. We’ll start with this 2008 novel by L.A. Banks. It is the second in the Crimson Moon series. Here is the synopsis from Google Books.

Sasha Trudeau considers herself a soldier first and a werewolf second. But while her secret government-sanctioned task-force faces its greatest challenge so far, Sasha faces something much more primal: the undeniable pull of the moon—and her own desires.
End Quote

2015 Song
Here’s the chorus from Melanie Fiona’s 2015 single Bite The Bullet.

I'll bite the bullet
I'll do it in the name of love
I guess I'll bite the bullet
Or stop playing with loaded guns
Stop playing with loaded guns
End Quote

The song is an R&B hip hop fusion that I really enjoyed.

2016 Book
Here’s another book with the title Bite the Bullet. This one is a 2016 novel by C.C. Wood. Here is the synopsis from Google Books:

I don't know what happened to my life. Just a few months ago, I was independent and had an exciting job I loved. Now, along with my friends, I'm in hiding. Why? Because I'm one of the Five, a group of human women bestowed with powers and abilities to fight and control supernatural beings. A prophesy was written about us centuries ago. We are supposed to save the world, though none of us knows how. Now, Cornelius, the leader of a malevolent group known as the Faction believes that by killing us and absorbing our power, he will become unstoppable in his bid to control not only the supernatural domain, but the entire world. After evading capture and an attempt on my life forced me into months of hiding, I finally have a chance to take action against the Faction - as bait. Asher Leroux, the vampire tasked with helping me, makes me feel things I don't understand. It's as if he fills the empty places in my soul, spaces that I didn't know existed. As the final battle draws closer, I know that defeating the Faction won't give me back the life I once had, but maybe that's not such a bad deal after all.
End Quote

2021 Song
One more song, this one by Eclipse. Bite the Bullet is their 2021 rock song that reminded me of some of the 80s and 90s rock with a slight dose of rockabilly thrown in.


End Quote                   

Wrap Up
I can’t say that I love this phrase. I don’t like the idea of biting into something that is hard because it makes my teeth hurt thinking of it. And I don’t like the allusion to someone just having to bear the pain. And as an American seeing gun violence take so many lives, I don’t love the reference to bullets.

But I do like the concept of mental resilience in the face of physical adversity. Which is what the phrase is trying to convey. It’s like dreary “stiff upper lip” of British English, or the more positive “Al mal tiempo, buena cara” of Spanish.

While I won’t use “bite the bullet” much, I’ll still espouse the concepts behind it. Press on through adversity to a more positive future.

That’s about all we have for today. If you have any thoughts on the show, or pop culture references we should have included, reach out to us at, or comment on our website

It’s poll time!

In April 2023 we asked our Patrons, Have you used ChatGPT or an equivalent?

The answer was a resounding yes, with 66% of our Patrons having used it for work or fun.

I don’t think I had used it at the time of this poll, but I’ve used it as a starting off point for a few things since then, mostly based on Mary’s comment.

When my husband was starting a handyman business, we didn't want to take forever to find a name, so I asked Chat.GPT to give us ideas. I kept asking in different ways such as, "What is a clever name for a handyman business?" or "What are some unique/good names for...? … I can tell you that process can take weeks and we did it in less than an hour with AI. Of course, being a child of the 60s and a teen in the 70s, I love the whole concept of AI (as long as it is used responsibly and not to take over the world).
End Quote


Jan was a little more like you on this one, Dan. He said:

I've played around with it and Bard. Nothing serious, but it's been kind of fun to see what it can do.
End Quote

I think the plethora of AI options that have come to market in the last few months are quite telling of its popularity. When we asked the question, it was ChatGPT and a few others. Now I’ve heard of 15 different options and I’m not particularly motivated to follow what all is out there.

As a reminder, our silly polls mean absolutely nothing and are not scientifically valid. But Patrons of all levels get to take part. Head over to to take this week’s poll!


Thanks for joining us. We’ll talk to you again next week. Until then remember,

Words belong to their users.



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