To the bitter end

To the bitter end is an idiom with a disputed etymology. An idiom is a word, group of words or phrase that has a figurative meaning that is not easily deduced from its literal definition. Often using descriptive imagery, common idioms are words and phrases used in the English language in order to convey a concise idea, and are often spoken or are considered informal or conversational. English idioms can illustrate emotion more quickly than a phrase that has a literal meaning, even when the etymology or origin of the idiomatic expression is lost. An idiom is a metaphorical figure of speech, and it is understood that it is not a use of literal language. Many English as a Second Language students do not understand idiomatic expressions such as beating around the bush, ballpark figure, let the cat out of the bag, hit the sack, Achilles heel, barking up the wrong tree, kick the bucket, a dime a dozen, under the weather, piece of cake, when pigs fly, and raining cats and dogs, as they attempt to translate them word for word, which yields only the literal meaning. In addition to learning vocabulary and grammar, one must understand the figurative language of idiomatic phrases in order to know English like a native speaker. We will examine the meaning of the expression to the bitter end, some possible sources of its origin, and some examples of its use in sentences.

To the bitter end means to complete something no matter how unpleasant or stressful it is to accomplish, to see something through to the end, even though the ending may be unpleasant. To the bitter end implies a commitment to fulfilling a responsibility, to doing a dirty job that no one else wants to do, to persevering in the face of adversity. There are two schools of thought concerning the origin of the idiom to the bitter end. Some believe that the phrase is adapted from a passage in the bible, translated in the King James Version in 1611: “For the lips of a strange woman drop as an honeycomb, and her mouth is smoother than oil:  But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword.” (Proverbs 5:3) Others trace the origin of the phrase to the bitter end to a nautical term, which was included in a lexicon called Seaman’s Grammar, published in 1627 by John Smith: “A Bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the Bits, and veare it out by little and little. And the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord.” Neither use of the phrase to the better end is the same as today’s meaning, which first occurred in the 1830s.


Former ANC MP Vytjie Mentor says she will “fight to the bitter end” after a cross-examination at the Zondo Commission last week brought her evidence into question.  (The Times Zaire)

Two small but feisty mosh pits slammed bodies to the bitter end. (The Beaver County Times)

It’s a fight to the bitter end for survival once he starts asking questions and deviating from being the perfect programmed soldier. (The Huntington Herald Dispatch)

I think she will cling on to the bitter end, but I would’ve hoped that enough Tory MPs could force a leadership contest. (Sputnik International)

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