What is the meaning and origin of ‘bite the bullet’? (L Nagaraj, Chennai)
This idiom has been around for several centuries, and it is mostly used in informal contexts. When someone tells you to ‘bite the bullet’, what he is asking you to do is to be prepared to face a rather unpleasant or tough situation. You have been avoiding it for a while, but the time has come for you to face it. It can no longer be avoided. Take a deep breath, and force yourself to do something that you don’t really want to.
We’ll be staying with your uncle. I know you don’t like him much. You’ll just have to bite the bullet for a couple of days.
With another increase in the price of petrol, it’s not just the auto-drivers who are biting the bullet.
There are several explanations as to the origin of the idiom. One of them is that it first began to be used in the military. Before painkillers were invented, when a patient had to be operated on, the doctor usually gave him a piece of wood or a piece of iron to bite on. This was to help the patient endure the pain — and also ensure that he did not scream into the doctor’s ears. During wars, when surgeries were performed close to the battlefield, wounded soldiers were given a bullet to bite on.
There are several ways of pronouncing the two words; I will deal with only one here. The first syllable of ‘ensure’ is pronounced like the word ‘in’, while the second sounds like the word ‘shore’. The word is pronounced ‘in-SHORE’ with the stress on the second syllable. The first vowel in ‘assure’ sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘china’. The word is pronounced ‘e-SHORE’. Although there is a tendency among some people to use the two words interchangeably, there is a difference in meaning between them. When you ‘assure’ someone of something, you are putting someone’s mind at ease by making a promise that something will be done. When you assure your business partner, for example, that you will have the report ready by Monday, what you are doing is making a commitment to him – you are giving him your word that you will have the report ready on or before Monday. You are removing all doubts.
The CEO assured everyone that there would be no layoffs.
The builder assured us that the flat would be ready by June.
While ‘assure’ is mostly used to talk about people, ‘ensure’ is used to talk about things. When you ‘ensure’ something, you do everything you possible can to make it happen. In other words, you are guaranteeing something. For example, you may assure your friend that your dog doesn’t bite. But in order to ensure that it doesn’t, you may choose to lock the animal up in another room. In other words, you are taking the necessary precaution to make sure that the dog doesn’t bite the person.
Please ensure that the money goes to the needy.
Malathi, your job is to ensure that the bride and the groom arrive on time.
Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you, mine are still greater.