Have you ever pondered idioms? Idioms are a fascinating glimpse into the past. But if you are just learning English, all they do is confuse you. How about “bite the bullet”? If you take this literally, it is pretty nonsensical – why on earth would you put a bullet in your mouth and bite on it? To native English speakers, this idiom of course means that in order to end something uncomfortable or unpleasant in the long run, it is necessary to undergo something unpleasant in the short run. But why should “bite the bullet” mean that?
It originated during a long ago war, probably the American Civil War. Men were getting shot, and for the ones lucky enough (or unlucky enough) not to be killed, their wounds often led to bacterial infection, or gangrene. This was way before antibiotics, so the only sure cure for gangrene was amputation. Surgeons in filthy conditions sawed off men’s limbs – often with NO anesthetics, which were in short supply.
Unsurprisingly, men tended to writhe and scream in anguish when their legs or arms were cut off, with nothing to dull the pain. This scared the other patients waiting their turn, disrupted the surgeons, and must have been agonizing to watch. So in order to give the patient something to focus on and cut down on his screaming, he was given a bullet to bite on. Bullets were used because they were readily available and were soft enough not to break the teeth.
When a man agreed to bite the bullet, he did so because he knew that this short agony was necessary to prevent a longer and more agonizing death
And now this idiom makes sense.
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