Glossary Home Idioms

Bite the bullet

“Bite the bullet” is used when speaking about something difficult or unpleasant. You bite the bullet when you do that unpleasant thing.

“Bite the bullet” is one of the most popular idioms used today. Like almost all idioms, “bite the bullet” is used colloquially or in normal everyday conversation in which no one is trying to elevate their speech or impress. It is very unlikely that one would find this phrase in a professional paper or presentation.

“Bite the bullet” is also a very good example of the essential definition of an idiom—a phrase that can’t be understood through a dissection of its individual parts. It is used by a specific group or culture to refer to something that’s not used in the phrase itself. This is why idioms are often so hard for new-English speakers, or new speakers of any language, to get used to. 

Bite the bullet idiom


Meaning of “Bite the bullet”

“Bite the bullet” is used when speaking about something difficult or unpleasant. Someone has to “bite the bullet” if they commit to doing something they don’t want to. This could be anything at all, from going to school to getting a divorce or going on a run. 


When To Use “Bite the bullet”

“Bite the bullet” should be used when you are telling someone that it’s time for them to do that one thing they really don’t want to. Alternatively, you might use it in reference to yourself. You could be telling someone else that you’re about to make yourself do something you’ve been dreading, or you might even be talking to yourself, out loud or within your own head. The phrase has a wide variety of possible uses. There are far fewer instances in which it shouldn’t be used than those in which it could. You might tell your friend that you’re about to “bite the bullet and go to the doctor’s office” or that you are about to sit down and the homework you’ve been dreading. 


Example Sentences With “Bite the bullet”

  • Well, I can’t put it off any longer. I’m going to just bite the bullet and call my mom. 
  • I think it’s time for you to bite the bullet and see a doctor. 
  • Freddy told me that he’s finally going to bite the bullet and clean his house. 
  • Margie and Alice are headed to the beach. I think it’s time for one of them to bite the bullet and talk about their relationship. 
  • Ugh, I’m biting the bullet and starting this project over.
  • Dale decided to bite the bullet and confess to murdering his uncle, Winston


Why Do Writers Use “Bite the bullet?” 

Writers use “bite the bullet” in dialogue and descriptions for the same reasons that they use other popular idioms. They fit into speech in a way that allows readers to feel connected to the writing. They make dialogue feel more realistic and believable, especially if everything around the idiom makes sense too. But, there are some situations in which idioms are less helpful than they are convincing. Some, those which the most popular, often come across as cliche or obvious. Sometimes they might have the opposite effect a writer intends with; they use one too frequently or in strange situations. 


Origin of “Bite the bullet”

The first popular recorded use of the phase was in Rudyard Kipling’s novel The Light that Failed, published in 1891. A piece of dialogue from the novel read: 

‘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,’

It likely began earlier, though, with the practice of literally biting on a bullet while undergoing a medical procedure. This was done in an effort to decrease pain and distract the patient. 

A slightly different version of the phrase was recorded in Francis Grose’s 1796 book, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. In the book, he wrote: 

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 phrase “chew a bullet” is close enough to convince some scholars to consider it an iteration of “bite the bullet.” Another interesting theory comes from the Indian Rebellion of 1857 and the practice of biting off the paper cartridge used for rifles. The Sepoys, who didn’t eat beef, refused to fight when they learned that the bullets and cartridges were greased with fat. “Biting the bullet” would’ve entailed that they violate their personal religious beliefs. 


Related Idioms 

  • “Pull the trigger.” 
  • “In the same boat.” 
  • “Over the line.” 
  • “Beyond the pale.” 
  • “Whether the storm.” 
  • Time is money.” 
  • Waste not want not.”
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