In Rudyard Kipling’s 1891 novel “The Light that Failed,” a man comforts his wounded and distressed companion with these words: “Steady, Dickie, steady…Bite on the bullet, old man, and don’t let them think you’re afraid.”

This is probably the first written reference to “bite the bullet,” an expression that exhorts one to endure pain, or any difficult situation, with fortitude. Though Kipling recorded it in 1891, the phrase most likely precedes this printed debut by at least two decades.

Some sources allege it arose on the battlefields of the Civil War, where campaign surgeons operated, without anesthesia, on critically injured soldiers. The wounded were given objects such as sticks, strips of leather or bullets to bite on to help them bear the pain, and to stifle their cries. A bullet, made of malleable lead, absorbed the bite of the patient without breaking his teeth, making it a useful and logical object for the task.

Though we now know anesthesia eliminates the discomfort of surgery, we still find the expression “bite the bullet” serviceable. It’s an idiom we use in all types of contexts. We might say we “bite the bullet” when we decide to pay off the credit card bill, or stoically tackle an unpleasant task despite our reluctance.