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The meaning and origin of the expression: Bite the dust

Bite the dust

What's the meaning of the phrase 'Bite the dust'?

Fall to the ground, wounded or dead.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Bite the dust'?

Given the many 1930s B-feature cowboy movies in which, in the outdated language of the time, the bad guys, or occasionally the pesky redskins, would 'bite the dust', we might expect this to be of American origin. It isn't though. The same notion is expressed in the earlier phrase 'lick the dust', from the Bible, where there are several uses of it, including Psalms 72 (King James Version), 1611:

"They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him and his enemies shall lick the dust."

The earliest citation of the 'bite the dust' version is from 1750 by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett , in his Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane:

"We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to flight."

Homer's epic poem The Iliad was written in around 700 BC. That was in Greek of course. It was translated into English in the 19th century by Samuel Butler and his version contains a reference to 'bite the dust' in these lines:

"Grant that my sword may pierce the shirt of Hector about his heart, and that full many of his comrades may bite the dust as they fall dying round him."

Whether that can be counted as an 8th century BC origin for 'bite the dust' is open to question and some would say that it was Butler's use of the phrase rather than Homer's.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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