We have all heard the term “bite the bullet” when it comes to dealing with something we don’t want to do; but what does biting a bullet have to do with enduring something that we deem unbearable? Furthermore, the idea of biting a bullet doesn’t sound fun or healthy; so why do people keep saying it? Herein lies the mystery.
Many people believe the term “bite the bullet” originated with soldiers on the battlefield needing something to bite down on to endure the pain of surgery before anesthetics were available. More times than not, a piece of leather or a stick of wood (sometimes referred to as billets) would be used in such an event, but when these items were not available there were more than enough bullets on the battlefield to compensate. Certain people have even suggested the term “bite the bullet” was misused and it was in fact “bite the billet”, but no proof of this exists.
Early paintings of surgery from the American Civil war are devoid of the patients biting on anything, but rather, they are depicted being given a stiff drink to endure the pain or ether and chloroform to knock them out during surgery. Despite this, the idea of chewing on a literal bullet endured until the mid to late 19th century where the idea evolved into a figurative term meaning to be brave and keep a stiff upper lip. This settlement was described by Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 novel, The Light That Failed:
“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.”