Word(s) of The Week Wednesday : To bite the bullet

On this edition of “Word(s) Of the Week Wednesday” we have “To bite the bullet” this is a very popular expression both in the business world and out of it. The definition comes, as always, from the Cambridge Dictionary.

  • (to) bite the bullet – idiom

to force yourself to do something unpleasant or difficult, or to be brave in a difficult situation:


  • We’re going to have to bite the bullet and lay off a few people for the company to stay afloat.
  • The lazy man decided to bite the bullet and start exercising, so he joined a gym.
  • After fighting with his mother for three months, Thomas bit the bullet and called her to apologize.
  • I’m thinking about biting the bullet and going back to school. What do you think?

The origin

According to the site “English for students” before the advent of ether, the first anesthetic surgery was a pretty desperate and painful affair, with the patient fully conscious and feeling the pain. These early surgeries were typically limb amputations or the removal of some object lodged into the body such as a bullet or arrowhead.

A typical amputation consisted of the surgeon using a saw to hack off the unwanted limb. The skin was then pulled down over the stub and sutured shut. Amazingly, some of these patients survived, but certainly the success ratio was low (poorly skilled physicians today are called hacks).

To ease the pain the patient was given a couple of stiff belts of whiskey to numb the senses, then given a stick or lead bullet to bite down on as the surgeon went to work with knife and saw.

The bullet or stick was given to let the patient focus their energy and attention on the biting instead of the cutting and pain. It may also have helped to reduce the screaming, which probably benefited the surgeon and attendants.

Why bite on a bullet? Made of lead, bullets are malleable. Although quite strong they will actually deform somewhat when bitten hard.Hence teeth would not break as would likely happen from biting a stone for example. Bullets are also readily available in times of war, when this type of surgery is frequently called for. Bite the bullet may have originated in the civil war.


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