‘Dodge a bullet’ might seem like a phrase that would be used in reference to soldiers, criminals, or cowboys, but it’s actually an idiom that can be used in a lot of different scenarios.
If someone says you ‘dodged a bullet,’ it means that you narrowly escaped something that could have been disastrous or avoided an undesirable circumstance like an injury, accident, or another unfortunate event.
The idiom ‘dodge a bullet’ means:
This informal idiom is used to express relief when something bad could have happened but didn’t. If someone tells you that they ‘dodged a bullet,’ they are making a positive statement that events could have unfolded in an unpleasant way, but everything ended up working out alright.
The easiest way to understand this idiom is to picture what it implies. If you ‘dodge’ (meaning ‘to avoid something by moving suddenly out of the way) a ‘bullet’ (referring to a projectile shot at a high speed from a gun), it means you narrowly escaped being shot and are unharmed.
You might hear a person using this phrase when talking about avoiding a legitimately dangerous experience, or it could be used in relation to a more light-hearted circumstance. For example, someone might use the phrase to talk about narrowly avoiding a potentially life-threatening car accident, while another person could use the same idiom to refer to escaping an overly complicated assignment at work.
Now that you understand what ‘dodge a bullet’ means, you might be wondering where the phrase originates.
This idiom can be traced back to the mid-nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth century. When it was first used, it was meant literally– such as describing a person that narrowly avoided being shot during combat. At this time, it was also used in reference to an animal (such as a deer) that was able to avoid being shot by a person hunting game.
During the second half of the twentieth century, ‘dodge a bullet’ took on the figurative meaning it more commonly carries today.
In searching the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we see that the first instances of ‘dodge a bullet’ being used appear in the 1840s. Its usage increased significantly during the 1860s, likely in relation to the American Civil War. After another brief lull, it became more common again in the mid-1880s. About a hundred years later, in the 1980s, it starts appearing exponentially more frequently in books.
Interestingly, the past-tense term ‘dodged a bullet’ (as opposed to the present-tense ‘dodge a bullet’) appears to have been very uncommon until about 1980, at which point its use also increased exponentially. The past-tense version of the idiom is now much more common in texts than the present-tense, according to the Ngram Viewer.
Believe it or not, Mythbusters decided to find out how far away the average individual would have to be standing in order to literally ‘dodge a bullet.’ The answer? About three football fields.
There are a number of different instances when you could use ‘dodge a bullet’ in normal conversation or when writing informally.
This idiom is frequently used when an accident or injury could have occurred but doesn’t. If you are driving and a car swerves into your lane, you could say you ‘dodged a bullet’ when you are able to quickly maneuver your vehicle out of the way of the other car.
‘Dodge a bullet’ can also be used to refer to avoiding unwanted events, even if they aren’t actually dangerous. For instance, if there’s a person you find really annoying and you manage to slip out of the room before they are able to see you and start talking to you, you could say you ‘dodged a bullet.’
Another common usage of ‘dodge a bullet’ has to do with romantic relationships. For instance, if you were dating a person and they broke up with you suddenly, you might be heartbroken at first. When you talk about the breakup with your friend, though, they might tell you that you ‘dodged a bullet’ because the person you were seeing treated you poorly and didn’t give you the respect you deserve.
You can use this phrase when something bad almost happens but doesn’t. You might say that you ‘dodged a bullet,’ for example, if you were carrying something heavy with a friend and it almost tipped over and fell on you, but you were able to stabilize it before that happened.
The phrase ‘close call’ and ‘dodge a bullet’ are often used interchangeably. For example, if you dropped your wallet on the train and only noticed right before you got off, you might say that you ‘dodged a bullet’ or that it was a ‘close call,’ referring to the fact that you nearly lost your wallet but caught your mistake before the damage was done.
Let’s look at some examples of ‘dodge a bullet’ and ‘dodged a bullet’ in sentences to help you get a clear sense of how it can be used in conversation and in writing.
Are you looking to expand your vocabulary and incorporate new, interesting phrases into your writing and conversations? If so, be sure to check out our articles about English idioms and phrases.