26 August 2012

Researching For Romance Writing: Biting The Bullet

Welcome back to Researching For Romance, a weekly series revealing my fabulous finds for use in writing. Please feel free to share any great sites that offer greater information on whatever topic is featured. :} 

The Origination Of A Phrase:  Bite The Bullet

We've all heard the above phrase.  There are different variations to the sentiment, and equally different meanings.  The term can apply to taking a chance, stepping up to the plate, or even to death.  Time has a way of 'turning a phrase', so to speak.

During my research into Native American culture, specifically the Plains Indians, I discovered where the phrase originated through reading.  Apparently, white buffalo hunters, after finding themselves on the wrong end of a Comanche spear (or perhaps more apt - after finding their friends and acquaintances on the wrong end of Comanche spears) decided it better to take their own lives rather than end up captive to a war party. 

Victims were tortured horribly when caught killing buffalo solely for their hides.  The Indians wanted to send a powerful warning to those slaughtering their very means of survival.  Tensions had escalated for years over thinning herds and shrinking hunting grounds.  As a result, Comanche (Not only Comanche, I'd like to add) warriors actively sought to destroy the men responsible.  Speared to the ground, men were discovered with their ears, tongues, and even genitals severed and stuffed into their mouths.  Some were skinned and left for dead, just as they had left the buffalo.  Others were used as a base for cooking fires, the cast off buffalo carcasses roasted on the captive's belly.  Brutal, no?  White buffalo hunters feared capture (and most importantly what would come after capture) more than death - and can you blame them?  Not without irony do I note that these adventurers, so intent on financial gain, 'Bit The Bullet' so to speak in chancing capture to hunt the buffalo in the first place.  But I digress... 

Nearly all hunters carried a .50 calibre cartridge that had been emptied and filled with cyanide.  Hence, when the day was lost, they would 'Bite The Bullet' rather than face the alternative - capture and certain torture at the hands of a war party.  I had never heard this before.  My introduction and understanding of the phrase had led me to believe its gist was 'taking a chance' or 'testing fate'.  While the phrase has taken on this meaning since those days, its origin reveals a much more sinister beginning.

 ~ Nadja
           

16 comments:

  1. I have never in my life heard of hunters using cyanide. That's wild. I would've thought they'd simply put a gun to their throat. 50 cal will pretty much insure a quick death.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had never heard this before either, Maria. It's amazing what you pick up from reading...eh?

      I thought much as you did...why not just use the bullet in its more traditional way??? LOL. But then, I guess they would save this option for the last possible moment.

      Delete
  2. Ha! And I thought it was from patients clenching a bullet between the teeth during surgery without anesthesia during war time.

    Love it. Learn something new every day :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This book was written/based before, during and after the Civil War - so I suppose the saying was rather versatile. :} - or :{ depending on how you look at it.

      Delete
  3. Fascinating story - though, to be candid, I think carrying the cyanide sounds like a modern invention. If you want to write historical fiction, I'd double check my sources. Though if you just want a dramatic scene - then go for it :). I mean, Davy Crockett never once wore a coon-skin hat (ala Disney) yet, hard to imagine him without it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Mark. It is always best to find at least two sources that concur. This information came from the accounts of a young man who lived among the Blackfeet Indians in the 1800's.
      The idea was also alluded to in a piece about Cynthia Ann Parker - who was taken into a Comanche tribe around the same time.
      As for the Davy Crockett mention - sigh...I'll be singing in my head all day now..
      'Davyyyyy...Daaavy Crockett, king of the wild frontier...' - remember the jingle in the Disney movie? Ha!

      Delete
  4. Fascinating research, Nadja. I will admit that cyanide seems a tad modern to me, but the time period is beyond my ken. I did think that surgical patients bit on leather straps or sticks before anaethesia, though.

    Oh, and Davyyyyy, Daavy Crockett--there's an earworm!

    Elizabeth Anne Mitchell

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hmmm. The book was non-fiction, but after reading all these interesting comments - I think I'll be on The Goggle...I'm beyond curious. :} That's what started this whole project in the first place.

      I wonder what I'll turn up? I always took the phrase to mean - taking a risky chance. I will try to post my discoveries to this comment thread in the next week or so. So, if anyone is interested....stop back. Hopefully, I'll find a definitive answer. :}

      Delete
  5. I was of the group who had heard of injured soldiers biting on a bullet during surgery as well. While this may have some truth to it, I'm fascinated by your earlier origin. I know cyanide has been around a while, but I didn't know it had been used that far back.

    I love learning something new every day! Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha! Don't learn too much...my reading has turned up three separate 'originations' for this phrase. I suppose, in the end, that the phrase was used in one way - and then grew to house many other meanings.

      However, I can find no reference to cyanide being used before the 1840's (The earliest I read of a scientist 'tinkering' with cyanide is 1819) - but I'm still investigating. While this is pre-Civil-War, it seems that it was not widely available at that time. I haven't had the chance to read thoroughly on cyanide, so I can't report anything for certain. Hmmm...maybe another post topic?

      Delete
  6. Informative site, #1 -
    http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/bite-the-bullet.html

    Also, Ambush At Mustang Canyon, Mike Kearby, (although this is a fictional title) alludes to the practice. Hmmm.

    In the book, Much Ado About English, the writer supports Raelyn's understanding of the origination of the phrase. Morris Dictionary of Words And Phrase agrees.

    Ron Chernow, in Washington: A Life, states that the phrase originated in Washington's time, as men who had to endure a severe flogging would bite a lead bullet to so as to survive the ordeal. The American Dictionary of Idioms states the same.

    The only reference to Bite The Bullet as used in my post were the J.W. Schultz memoirs and the tale of Cynthia Ann Parker.

    If I find anything else - I'll add it to the thread! This has turned into a great discussion...thanks to everyone for joining in!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Fascinating research, Nadja. My period is the 1840s too, and I will look for more info on Cynthia Ann Parker. I will also look for the J.W. Schultz memoirs as well. Your research certainly goes past the surface!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I enjoyed both books a great deal. Anyone interested in Native American culture will likely devour these two titles.

      Delete
  8. That's fascinating, Nadja! Isn't research fun! I love the weird facts I keep learning over the years. :)

    Good luck on your Western (at least I assume it goes in that direciton, given your research *g*) and have a great rest of the week!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Research is one of my favorite parts of the writing process. I'm a curious person ...LOL. I'd love to use this research to write a romance set during the time the Plains Indians roamed freely. We'll see where the breeze takes me. :}

      Delete
    2. Not to put a damper on your enthusiasm, I'd suggest that if you are going to write a romance based on Plains Indians, or any tribe for that matter, research some of the sites on the net written by, for and about Native Americans. Especially the furor over Disney's portrayal of Pocahantas, the female lead in Dances With Wolves. Start with University American Indian Studies Departments for recommendations.

      I don't buy historical romances featuring Indians for the very reason that it doesn't portray the Indian male and the occasional female in a very realistic manner.

      Delete