A friend once gave a talk in front of a difficult audience, and, when asked how it had gone, replied, “I bit the bullet.” He was beaming with happiness when he used this idiom, confusing everyone who’d heard him. It turns out that he thought that bite the bullet meant pulling off an almost impossible feat, like a magician catching a bullet in her teeth, and that his talk had gone well.
Last week we talked about idioms that are easier to understand in their original context, and bite the bullet is a good example. Folk etymology holds that soldiers would bite bullets to help them tolerate pain during battlefield surgeries in the Civil War. In fact, soldiers who were sentenced to be flogged – a common military punishment from the 17th to the early 19th century – would bite on soft lead bullets to avoid crying out and seeming “weak.” A 1788 slang dictionary explains: “It is a point of honour in some regiments ... never to cry out ... whilst under the discipline of the cat o’ nine tails; to avoid which, they chew a bullet.” When you bite the bullet, then, you “force yourself to do something unpleasant or difficult, or to be brave in a difficult situation,” according to the Cambridge Dictionary.
I had always thought that cool as a cucumber was coined because of the pleasing alliteration of the “k” sounds, not because it made any sense. When I grew cucumbers last year, I discovered what farmers have apparently known since at least the 17th century, when the saying first appeared: Cucumbers really do feel cool and refreshing on a hot summer day. In the 17th century, cukes were considered among the “coldest” and “dampest” foods according to humoral theory, which ranked foods according to temperature and moisture content. Cool as a cucumber thus means “calm and collected,” unbothered by stresses like oppressive heat, or public speaking.
Another fruit idiom was produced when the Psalms were first translated into English. In Psalms 17:8, David asks God to “Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of thy wings.” In Hebrew, the word is not apple, but ishon, “little man.” When you look into someone else’s eye, you see a tiny image of yourself reflected; ishon thus means “pupil.”
When the psalm was translated into Old English in the 10th century, however, it became apple (æppel). Scholars speculate that Anglo-Saxons used the word “apple” for “pupil” because they conceived of this part of the eye as a solid ball that could actually fall out if a person wasn’t careful, but you can see a little version of yourself reflected in a particularly shiny apple, too. The idiom has been the apple of someone’s eye since then, meaning, according to Merriam-Webster, “a person or thing that someone loves very much.”