Wednesday 8 August 2007

Phrase of the Day 131: 'bite the bullet'

"to bite the bullet"

definition: to pay a painful price and move on.

example: "If you want to clear those 8 points off your driving license, you will need to bite the bullet and pay the fines."

origin: Before the first anesthetic, surgery was a pretty desperate and painful affair, with the patient fully conscious and feeling the pain. These early surgeries were typically limb amputations or the removal of some object lodged into the body such as a bullet or arrowhead.

A typical amputation consisted of the "surgeon" using a saw to hack off the unwanted limb. The skin was then pulled down over the stub and sutured shut. Amazingly, some of these patients survived, but certainly the success ratio was low (poorly skilled physicians today are called "hacks").

To ease the pain the patient was given whiskey to numb the senses, then given a stick or lead bullet to bite down on as the surgeon went to work with knife and saw.

The bullet or stick was given to let the patient focus their energy and attention on the biting instead of the cutting and pain. It may also have helped to reduce the screaming, which probably benefited the surgeon and attendants.

Why bite on a bullet? Made of lead, bullets are malleable. Although quite strong they will actually deform somewhat when bitten hard. Hence teeth would not break as would likely happen from biting a stone for example. Bullets are also readily available in times of war, when this type of surgery is frequently called for. "Bite the bullet" may have originated in the civil war.

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