'Bite the Bullet': Definition, Meaning, Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on September 25, 2023

If you've ever heard the saying 'bite the bullet,' you might have wondered what it means. Today, you'll learn the origin of this phrase and when it's appropriate to use it.

In short, to 'bite the bullet' means:

  • To show courage by going ahead with something difficult or painful because it's necessary.

What Does 'Bite the Bullet' Mean?

The expression 'bite the bullet' is commonly used in the English language, as it refers to something we often have to do. It is an idiom, which means it's not to be interpreted literally.

  • It's a metaphor for doing something very difficult and unpleasant because it's something that can't be avoided.

To 'bite the bullet' requires courage because it means doing something we don't want to do. Imagine, for example, that you're the manager of an organization, and you've been told you have to downsize, which means you have to fire some employees. You don't want to do it because all your employees are good workers and everybody needs a job, but you have no choice as it's part of your job to do it.

You might say, in a conversation with your friend:

I really don't want to do this but I have to bite the bullet because I have no choice. 

The dictionary defines it as follows:

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

'Bite the bullet' contains a verb ('bite'), which means you might see it in different forms, such as the present simple ('bite'), the present participle ('biting'), the past participle ('bit'), or the third person singular ('bites').

Where Does 'Bite the Bullet' Come From?

The first symbolic use of the phrase is said to have been in Rudyard Kipling's 1891 novel The Light That Failed, in the following passage:

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.

But why did people start saying that? Where did it come from? And when did it take on its symbolic meaning? There are two major theories.

Soldiers at War

Before anesthesia was commonplace, it is said that giving patients undergoing surgery a leather strap or wooden strap to chew was customary. The idea was that this would prevent them from biting their tongues or at least curtail the screaming. As the tale goes, these contraptions might not have been as readily available during the war, so as the story goes, soldiers were given bullets to bite down on. Back then, bullets were made of a soft metal.

  • Some believe the phrase was probably 'bite the billet' (a billet being another word for wooden stick), and it evolved to 'bite the bullet.'

The phrase could have come from this practice. However, there's very little evidence this was actually the case. Neither in art nor literature is there any depiction of patients biting down on anything, let alone a bullet. We just have one account by Harriet Tubman, an American abolitionist and social activist, receiving an operation and biting down on a bullet because she had reportedly seen Civil War soldiers do this when they were operated on.

The Indian Rebellion

Another theory says that during the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the Sepoys—Indian fighters recruited to fight alongside the British army—were required to bite down on cartridges to release the powder before inserting them into their firearm. Many objected because they were worried that the greased paper they came in was tainted with animal blood, which their religion forbids them from ingesting.

But they were convinced to overcome their uneasiness and do it anyway. It would make sense that the idiom would come from these events, considering it means to overcome your fears and do something uncomfortable that you didn't want to do.

However, this theory doesn't hold when you consider that 61 years earlier, the Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue published a definition that featured the phrase:

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. 

Examples in Sentences

Now, let's take a look at some examples of this idiom used in sentences. I'll show you examples of the expression in all its different forms, which include the present simple ('bite'), the present participle ('biting'), the past participle ('bit'), and the third person singular ('bites').

Although Eric was anxious, he bit the bullet and asked Anna out.

I know he's afraid of the dentist but he has to bite the bullet on this one.  

You can't bail this time; you have to bite the bullet.

He'd always been afraid of heights but he was used to biting the bullet for his career as a pilot.

It's going to be a difficult conversation but we must bite the bullet and get it over with. 

I've grown weary of taking on extra shifts but I have to bite the bullet so I can pay my bills.

You're going to have to bite the bullet and ask for a promotion if you ever want to progess in this organization.

She dislikes public speaking but she always bites the bullet.

I'll have to bite the bullet and go to summer school if I want to graduate. 

Other Ways to Say 'Bite the Bullet'

'Bite the bullet' is not the only way to describe a situation where you must do something you don't want to. There are other words and phrases you can use, too.

Here are some of them:

  • grin and bear it
  • endure
  • face the music
  • face up to it
  • swallow the pill
  • grasp the nettle
  • face the storm
  • take the heat

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article; I think you get the picture, but to summarize, to 'bite the bullet' means facing something we are uncomfortable about, finding our courage, and doing it anyway.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Be sure to check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!  

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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