A mouth with a bullet between its teeth

Bite the bullet

Meaning: To not procrastinate something unpleasant

Originated in: 🇺🇸 United States of America

Earliest attestation: The Light that Failed by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

To bite the bullet means to accept something you don’t want to do—usually which you have been putting off—and to go through with it despite its unpleasantness. After a lot of procrastinating, you bite the bullet and finally do it.

This idiom likely derives from a myth about surgery in the 1800s. Minié balls were type of bullet used extensively in the Civil War which frequently broke bones. With limited resources and no antibiotics, amputation was frequently the only viable treatment for battlefield surgeons treating such wounds.

Despite common misconceptions, chloroform was available in those days and was almost always used to first render such patients unconscious. However, I left them in a restless “sleep” where their body would still jerk and react to pain even if the soldiers couldn’t feel it themselves. Bystanders would see the surgeon sawing through a soldier’s limb with a bonesaw while he groaned and shook about,—seemingly in great pain—and believe the soldier was having to endure the torture of every stroke of the saw. Thus, they imagined that to endure the excruciating suffering, the soldiers must be given something to bite down on to distract them and keep them from breaking their teeth—something durable yet still relatively soft. Common ideas were sticks, leather, and—especially on a battlefield—lead bullets.

Of course this was very rarely a reality, but it’s such a striking image of war, suffering, and human endurance that it was readily picked up as an expression. Biting the bullet remains a common idiom to convey willingness to undertake challenges to this day.