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Member
Picture of Chris J. Strolin
posted
A question has come up on the OEDILF site regarding the phrase "to bite the bullet," meaning to prepare for something unpleasant and unavoidable.

Legend has it that it was the custom back in the pre-anesthesia days of the American Wild West for someone to bite down on a bullet during surgery, childbirth, or whatever, apparently to help keep the unfortunate person from screaming or distract him/her from the pain. I have found references citing rope and, more logically, strips of leather used for exactly this purpose but does anyone know if there is any credible evidence out there that actual bullets were ever used? It doesn't seem likely to me and yet stranger things have happened. One of the OEDILFers suggested that possibly "bullet" was a corruption of another word and that the answer to this puzzle might be in the etymology of the phrase so, naturally, I thought of Wordcraft. Any thoughts, anyone?

FWIW, this is the limerick that began the discussion.

He informed me before we'd begun:
"Anesthesia? I'm sorry, there's none.
But that fish hook, no doubt—
One good pull and it's out.
Bite the bullet, it's got to be done!"
 
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Picture of zmježd
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There is an old term bullet in mouth (or bullet en bouche) which means ready for action.
quote:
That it shall be lawful for the said garrison to march out all at once, or at different times, as they can be embarked, with arms, baggage, drums beating, match lighted at both ends, bullet in mouth, colours flying, six brass guns, such as the besieged will choose, two mortar-pieces, and half the ammunition that is now in the magazines of the said place: and for this purpose an inventory of all the ammunition in the garrison shall be made in the presence of any person that the general shall appoint, the next day after these present articles shall be signed.

Treaty of Limerick (!) 1691


I suppose a bullet is kept in the mouth for rapid refire, rather than searching a pouch for same. I wonder if this phrase could be related to bite the bullet.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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Picture of arnie
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There's an interesting discussion on this subject at http://www.phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/43/messages/19.html

quote:
... a bullet was used because lead is just soft enough that the man wouldn’t break his teeth biting it. Bullets with tooth marks have actually been found near American Revolution battlefields.


Regarding zmjezhd's mention of 'bullet in mouth' there is mention there of the old Enfield rifle having cartridges which required the end to be bitten off before firing. Perhaps that's the origin of that phrase.


Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
 
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The Enfield cartridges were not covered in either pig or cow fat. It was Mangal Pandy who first rebelled on the strength of this rumour and future mutineers were known as Pandies. It has not been linked to bite the bullet as far as I know.
Indeed the medical reference would seem to be rather hazerdous as there is a significant choking hazard.
I know that bullets were indeed stored in the mouth during combat, but it was the paper twits of gunpowder that were bitten off. In the excitement a soldier may bite the bullet by mistake.
 
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Picture of zmježd
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Also, the Mutiny was in the mid-19th century and the Limerick Treaty was at the end of the 17th. I looked again at the definitions for bullet in the OED, and it refers always to the projectile, usually lead in the case of small fire arms, but also other metals in the case of canon sot (it kept its original French meaning for a while, from the 16th century on.


Ceci n'est pas un seing.
 
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My main concern with the limerick is that the person has no idea how to remove a fishhook. Unless it is part of the joke. A fish hook is never pulled out, it has to be carefully backed out, often after trimming the barb. I would accept it as humor, but the tone seems just serious enough to invoke the opposite in me. Maybe I'm overanalyzing the situation.
 
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Picture of Kalleh
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Sean, if you are overanalyzing the situation, so am I. I had exactly the same thought, though I attributed it to my literalism.

As far as a medical reference to 'bite the bullet,' as far as I know, there is none. One of my areas of study has been 'pain,' and I haven't read about 'bite the bullet' being a way to stand the pain. Of course, maybe I just hadn't come across it.
 
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Picture of Chris J. Strolin
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In defense of the lowly limerick, I have often stated that, as a form of poetry, it can move a reader in any way that other forms of poetry can. It can move you to laughter, certainly, but it can also move you to tears, make you think, or stir any number of emotions in you. In this case, I was deliberately trying to bring a shiver down the spine of the reader and I'd like to think I succeeded. I can't read this one myself without wincing in part because, yes, the person attending this poor narrator obviously doesn't know what he or she is doing. The efforts of this person, as well-intentioned as they may be, will very likely lead to a nasty scar at the very least.

Thanks much for that link. It was both interesting and informative.
 
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Picture of Kalleh
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quote:
In defense of the lowly limerick,

I don't consider it a "lowly" form at all.

You are right about your limerick, and I, for one, like it.

I would like to comment on your point that limericks can move you to tears or cause other emotions. Personally, I see limericks as a humorous form of poetry. I truly love them for their humor, therefore. The more serious ones, and I have written them myself (especially the medical ones) work, but not as much for me. That's another aspect of personal taste, I guess.

It would seem rare that you could astutely define a word in 5 lines, while having a smooth rhythm, great rhymes, and be humorous besides. I just marvel at how many times that happens! The limericks like that (and there are lots of them) are absolutely spectacular.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: Kalleh,
 
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I found this site about "bite the bullet" as well. It looks like an interesting site, and I will post about it in Links for Linguaphiles. I don't know much about it, but it seems that the person running the site will take anyone's submissions, which means we must be skeptical of the content.
 
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Picture of Richard English
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I read once that there is a medical reaon why clenching one's teeth helps a person to reduce or ignore to some extent, pain.

I understood that the bullet was an aid to clenching which could help prevent damage to the teeth which could occur if the jaws were clenched too tightly onto them.


Richard English
 
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