February 06, 2013

Bite the bullet

Numerous phrases that we use today come from the 19th century. The phrase bite the bullet is often cited as a term involved in 19th century surgery. 

During the War of 1812, military hospitals did not use anaesthetics when performing surgery on patients. One gruesome operation was the amputation of limbs. Part of the operation involved the patient being held to a table while he bit down on a strap of leather or a piece of wood. One possible origin of the bite the bullet phrase comes from the belief that surgeons would have patients bite on a musket ball if a leather strap or wood was unavailable.

War of 1812 surgery kit
This explanation is not accurate. For starters, patients often passed out during major surgery, such as amputations. In addition, surgeons would be unlikely to give patients a musket ball to bite on since they could easily swallow it. Clearly, choking on a musket ball or bullet does not contribute to healing a patient.

The origin for the bite the bullet phrase comes from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The story goes that a group of soldiers recruited by the British, the Sepoys, refused to fight when a new rifle design was issued to them. The new rifle used a greased paper cartridge that the soldiers would need to bite in order to use. Many soldiers refused to do so because the Hindu soldiers feared the grease was made of cow fat and the Muslim soldiers feared that the grease was pig fat. The theory is that soldiers were told to ignore their religious beliefs and bite the bullet. 

If you want to learn more about surgery and other common phrases that we use today from the 19th century, you can visit Fort George on Saturdays and Sundays until the end of March. Help warm them up with some good questions.

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