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The origins of 'another one bites the dust'

By Corinne Cunard

Oct. 15, 2010 9:22 p.m.

Most people who hear the phrase “bite the dust” probably think of the Queen song “Another One Bites the Dust,” but it has been around much longer than 1980.

So I asked a couple of people what the phrase meant, and while most gave a correct definition, they were unable to describe its origins.

“It’s this huge kind of fail ““ you go down. In baseball, you strike out. They play it at Dodger games,” said Ben Caplan, a second-year undeclared social sciences student.

The phrase still has a similar meaning even outside of the context of baseball.

“You are getting close to dying, I believe. You are about to bite the dust ““ you are about to die” said Paulina Aguilar, a first-year biochemistry student.

Both Caplan and Aguiler’s definitions of the phrase are pretty spot-on. “Bite the dust” is usually used to describe a fall to the ground or someone’s death and is more commonly associated with the death of a soldier in battle, but it also has the more modern association with general failure.

There was more uncertainty as to the phrase’s origin: “From the song?” Caplan said.

Only a couple hundred years off, Aguiler comes a bit closer.

“I would say the 1850s, maybe? Around there,” Aguiler said.

Strangely enough, “bite the dust” has been around since the King James Bible was published in 1611. According to the Bible, “They that dwell in the wilderness shall bow before Him; and His enemies shall lick the dust” (Psalms 72.9). While “lick the dust” is a variation of the phrase we know today, it still contains the similar meaning of falling to the ground in defeat.

One of the first uses of the phrase as we know it today was in Tobias Smollett’s translated version of “The Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane,” published in 1748, as it appeared in a quote: “We made the two of them bite the dust, and the others prepare themselves to fight.”

But one of the more familiar associations is with Samuel Butler’s translation of Homer’s “The Iliad,” as Butler uses “bite the dust” to describe the death of Roman soldiers in battle. Probably the most recent uses of the phrase (not counting the Queen song) occur in old Western films to describe fallen cowboys.

So from the Bible to Queen, “bite the dust” has been making a reputation for itself for more than 300 years. With phrases that have histories like “bite the dust,” it is a wonder that they are still in use today.

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Corinne Cunard
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