Sometimes it is necessary for a person to do a thing that is either painful or objectionable, but must be carried out. If that person forces themselves to get on with the task in hand, they are said to ‘bite the bullet’.
This idea is thought to have derived from battlefield surgeries, when amputations and medieval medical procedures were done without anaesthetic. To distract the ‘patient’ – although ‘torture victim’ may be more appropriate – from the pain, a bullet was placed in their mouth for them to bite down on. Sticks or leather were also used, but lead bullets were both readily available in a battle and malleable, so the patient’s teeth wouldn’t break.
Ether came into use in 1846, so the phrase was born before this, either in the 18th or early-19th centuries. Along with ‘stiff upper lip’, the saying grew in popularity in Victorian Britain, used as a display of courage or fortitude.
Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 novel, The Light that Failed offers one of the earliest surviving written accounts of the phrase. A passage reads: “‘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.’”
Around this time, a second theory emerged to explain where ‘biting the bullet’ may have come from. When the British Empire was at the height of its power in India, a new rifle was introduced, with paper cartridges greased with animal fat. To load, soldiers bit the paper and poured the powder down the gun. This caused religious turmoil for the Sepoys – native Indian soldiers in the British army – as they were not permitted to eat the meat or fat or sacred animals. They had to be forced by the British officers to ‘bite the bullet’. Offended Sepoys eventually sparked the Indian Rebellion of 1857, but this is not the source of the phrase, as it was already in common use.