The Real Reason We Say 'Bite The Dust

Boom, boom, boom ... Snap! Another one bites the dust! Yeah, it's pretty much impossible to speak that line, and use that phrase, without hearing Freddie Mercury's magnificent, virtuosic vibrato from Queen's 1980 album "The Game." It's a pretty dramatic way to view death: face ground into the dirt, mouth agape, eyes perhaps agog. How else could you actually "bite" the dust? Or "the big one," yet another thing that people apparently bite when dying. And somehow it all connects a live-giving function — chewing, eating — with the grave.

Where did this phrase come from? It makes sense that we associate dust, dirt, and earth with death. Even Neanderthals buried their dead 70,000 years ago, as the CBC says. Sending someone back to the dust from whence they came, face down or face up, could definitely result in teeth coming into contact with topsoil.

The first documented time the phrase was used? It was the Greek poet Homer himself who deployed it in the "The Iliad" when it was written about 700 BCE. As Phrases tells us, he wrote, "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." The novelist Samuel Butler translated Homer's Greek into English in the 1800s.

Other notable dust-biters

Some folks have said that Homer's use of "bite the dust" doesn't count because it wasn't written in English, or depends on translations. To them we say: Check the dictionary for the origins of "nitpicker."

As for other dust-biters, or instances of people biting dust, western civilization's literary corpus has a whole bunch for us. The King James version of the Bible mentions in Psalms 72:9 (per Bible Gateway) that David prayed, "They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before him; and his enemies shall lick the dust." Not quite biting, yes. But related to the mouth and also dust? Check.

Quite a bit later, in 1750, Scottish author Tobias Smollett used the phrase when he translated Alain-Rene Lesage's "Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane," as the website Writing Explained relates. "We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to flight," Smollett wrote (though that's a translation from the original French). It definitely sounds like two dudes were ignobly murdered — bit the dust — and some other ones ran away.

As a thread on Quora discusses, "bite the dust" also was popularly used in TV Westerns and in shows featuring old-timey 1920s gangsters. It's not too hard to imagine "bite the dust" being spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger, a one-liner a guy with a gun might say to a corpse. All in all, the phrase was in popular circulation long before Freddie Mercury.