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Dr Klaus Bung
68 Brantfell Road
Blackburn BB1-8DL


© 2012 Klaus Bung

Teachers tell you WHAT to learn, IDYLL (R) shows you HOW to learn it.

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Klaus Bung:
She has the bit between her teeth

This is an article about women who can't be stopped talking, like the Shrew in Shakespeare's play "The Taming of a Shrew", about men who are sure of victory, about Chaucer's "Wife of Bath" who had all her five (consecutive) husbands under her thumb, of armies who scent victory and cannot be stopped by their thoughtful generals from attacking, of horses who are scared and bolt, of run-away trains and run-away toboggans, of mobs which are out of control, of daughters who get married against their fathers' wishes. What do they all have in common - the self-confident women, the horses who run away in fear, and the armies which fearlessly charge to victory, the trains and toboggans which cannot be stopped? They all have the bit between their teeth. This essay explains how such an absurdity is possible, at least in English.

Read more

Brian has the bit between his teeth

A few days ago, I was listening to The Archers, a popular soap opera on BBC Radio 4. For several months now, Brian, a rich land-owner in a village near Oxford, has been involved in a propaganda battle with environmentally minded inhabitants of the village. He wants to set up a big intensive dairy unit (for keeping cows and producing milk on an industrial scale and in industrial conditions). Many people in the village hate this plan. They have meetings, make speeches, set up websites pro and con (= pro and contra = for and against). Sometimes it seems that Brian is winning, sometimes his opponents are winning. At the end of the last episode, a character says: "Well, it seems Brian definitely has the bit between his teeth." This means something like: Things look good for Brian. Brian has the upper hand. Brian can be optimistic. Brian can do what he likes form now on. His opponents are on the run.

But what is this bit which Brian has between his teeth. It is not a bit of the other. And where exactly is this bit? Let's look at horses before we look at men.


Horses have a space ("interdental space") between the incisors (front teeth) and the premolars (teeth adjacent to the incisors). When a horse is harnessed, the rider fits a piece of metal (or plastic) into this gap. This piece is called "the bit". The rider attaches the reins (leather straps) to the bit. The horse feels pressure in the gap, it feels pain when the rider pulls the reins on the left or on the right or on both sides. This is how the rider can control his horse, tell him to go left or right, or to hold him back. This is the normal position of the bit.

This rider is pulling the reins too strongly and is hurting the horse.

the bit

Note on pronunciation and spelling:
Three words, same pronunciation, different spelling:
  • rain /reɪn/ = water from the sky;
    related: German "Regen" = rain
  • reign /reɪn/ = territory ruled by a king;
    from Latin: regnum = reign; rex, regis = king
  • rein /reɪn/ = leather strap used to control a horse;
    related: Latin "re-tenere" = hold back

When the bit is in the gap, the horse can be controlled.

When the bit is between the horse's teeth, it is NOT in the gap, but the horse is biting on it. The bit cannot hurt the horse even if the rider pulls hard. "between the teeth" here means between the top teeth and the bottom teeth. It does not mean between the teeth on either side of the gap.

Dictionary definitions

Now we can look at a more general dictionary definition of this idiom (taken from the Internet):

Definition 1:

If you take or have the bit between your teeth, you take or have control of a situation. (Bit = piece of metal in a horse's mouth)

Definition 2:

take the bit between one's teeth = to take charge.

Example: The company needed a new manager for the project. So he took the bit between his teeth.

Examples of this idiom in print

Now we look at cases where this idiom has actually been used. First we look at examples in print. Then we look at examples on the Internet, which will be more current than those in print.

We start with horses. Then we will see how it is applied, in a figurative (= not literal) sense, to human beings, and then even to non-human entities (things, people, organisations, or anything that exists).

Example 1: Horse

Even as I beheld this a lurid green glare lit the road about me and showed the distant woods towards Addlestone. I felt a tug at the reins. I saw that the driving clouds had been pierced as it were by a thread of green fire, suddenly lighting their confusion and falling into the field to my left. It was the third falling star!

Close on its apparition, and blindingly violet by contrast, danced out the first lightning of the gathering storm, and the thunder burst like a rocket overhead. The horse took the *** bit between his teeth *** and bolted.

Source: H G Wells (1866-1946): The War of the Worlds

Note: The narrator is riding a horse. He feels "a tug at the reins". He is about to see the landing of a space craft from an alien world. The horse gets frightened and bolts (= runs away). The rider has lost control. The horse is now in control, even though the horse is frightened and therefore runs away.

If a horse, or a train, etc, runs away, it is normally described as being out-of-control. This is a paradox of language. From the point of view of the rider, the horse is "out-of-control". From the point of view of the horse, the horse is "in-control". It can give way to its fear and run away.

Example 2: Horse

The Indolent Apprentice snorted, pawed, whirled, dashed through the open gateway,— the duke's hands were even less strong than his daughter had thought,—and galloped, head in air and *** bit between teeth *** , up the avenue, the low carriage rocking from side to side.

Source: Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924): T Tembaron

Note: "Indolent Apprentice" is the name of a lazy pony (indolent = lazy). The pony is startled (= surprised and frightened) by two frightened rabbits who jumped out from under a hedge.

Example 3: Army storms to victory

Although the month was November, the day was in character an October one—cool, clear, bright, intoxicatingly invigorating; one of those days peculiar to the ripest hours of our American Autumn. This weather must have had much to do with the spontaneous enthusiasm which seized the troops—and enthusiasm aided, doubtless, by glad thoughts of the victory of Look-out Mountain won the day previous, and also by the elation attending the capture, after a fierce struggle, of the long ranges of rifle-pits at the mountain's base, where orders for the time should have stopped the advance. But there and then it was that the army took *** the bit between its teeth ***, and ran away with the generals to the victory commemorated. General Grant, at Culpepper, a few weeks prior to crossing the Rapidan for the Wilderness, expressed to a visitor his impression of the impulse and the spectacle: Said he: "I never saw any thing like it:" language which seems curiously undertoned, considering its application; but from the taciturn Commander it was equivalent to a superlative or hyperbole from the talkative.

Source: Herman Melville (1819-1891): "Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War"

Note: This is an interesting inversion of the "run-away" examples we have seen so far, a paradox. The generals are sceptical and have not given orders to attack. They want the army to stop before the base of the mountain. But the soldiers have smelt victory. Victory is in the air. The soldiers are more optimistic than the generals. So they "take control", not like a run-away horse, but like a run-forward horse, a run-to-victory horse. The soldiers charged (= attacked), they ran forward to victory, and the generals couldn't stop them. No wonder that one of the generals said afterwards: "I never saw any thing like it".

Example 4: Run-away toboggan

The correct position is to sit; but the fantastic will sometimes sit hind-foremost, or dare the descent upon their belly or their back. A few steer with a pair of pointed sticks, but it is more classical to use the feet. If the weight be heavy and the track smooth, the toboggan takes the *** bit between its teeth ***; and to steer a couple of full-sized friends in safety requires not only judgment but desperate exertion. On a very steep track, with a keen evening frost, you may have moments almost too appalling to be called enjoyment; the head goes, the world vanishes; your blind steed bounds below your weight; you reach the foot, with all the breath knocked out of your body, jarred and bewildered as though you had just been subjected to a railway accident.

Source: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894): "Essays of Travel 11: Alpine Diversions"

Note: Stevenson describes the joys of riding a toboggan (sledge) in the Alps (mountain range extending through Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France, and probably some other countries). If several people sit on it and if they are heavy and if the track is smooth or icy, the toboggan will move downhill very fast. It can go so fast that the rider can no longer control it, cannot slow it down, cannot steer it left or right. The toboggan behaves as if it had a mind of its own. It behaves like a bolting horse, which cannot be stopped. It behaves like a horse which has taken the bit between its teeth.

The Alps

Oh, jingle bells, jingle bells Jingle all the way

This woman has taken the bit between her teeth. As a result, she won the nude tobogganning competition: Instead of clothes she has a lot of fat to keep her warm. See the competitor's number sprayed on her jingle bells. She "dares the descent upon her belly", as Stevenson says, a dangerous enterprise. She inspired the poet who wrote the lyrics of the secular Christmas song "Jingle bells"

Dashing through the snow
In a one horse open sleigh
O'er the fields we go
Laughing all the way
Bells on bob tails ring
Making spirits bright
What fun it is to laugh and sing
A sleighing song tonight

Oh, jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Oh, what fun it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh
Jingle bells, jingle bells
Jingle all the way
Oh, what fun it is to ride
In a one horse open sleigh

In Shakespeare's play "Romeo and Juliet" 16-year-old Juliet is about to get married. Her nurse remembers how Juliet aged 4 fell on her face (like the woman on to toboggan). The nurse's husband, now long dead, then wittily remarked:
'dost thou fall upon thy face?
Thou wilt fall backward when thou hast more wit;
Wilt thou not, Jule?'
(= Do you fall on your face? You will fall backward when you are grown-up. Won't you, Jule?)

The run-away train

This is the place where you should listen to the song of the run-away train. This is a train which has taken the bit between its teeth.



The runaway train
T'was in the year of '89 on that old Great Western line,
When the winter wind was blowin' shrill,
The rails were froze, the wheels were cold,
Then the air brakes wouldn't hold,
And Number 9 came roaring down the hill -- oh!

The runaway train came down the track and she blew,
The runaway train came down the track and she blew,
The runaway train came down the track,
Her whistle wide and her throttle back,
And she blew, blew, blew, blew, blew.

The engineer said the train must halt and she blew,
The engineer said the train must halt and she blew,
The engineer said the train must halt --
He said it was all the fireman's fault,
And she blew, blew, blew, blew, blew.

The fireman said he rang the bell and she blew,
The fireman said he rang the bell and she blew,
The fireman said he rang the bell --
The engineer said "You did like hell!"
And she blew, blew, blew, blew, blew.

The porter got an awful fright and she blew,
The porter got an awful fright and she blew,
The porter got an awful fright --
He got so scared he near turned white,
And she blew, blew, blew, blew, blew.

A donkey was standing in the way and she blew,
A donkey was standing in the way and she blew,
A donkey was standing in the way
And all they found was just his bray,
And she blew, blew, blew, blew, blew.

The conductor said there'd be a wreck and she blew,
The conductor said there'd be a wreck and she blew,
The conductor said there'd be a wreck
And he felt the chills run up his neck,
And she blew, blew, blew, blew, blew.

The runaway train went over the hill and she blew,
The runaway train went over the hill and she blew,
The runaway train went over the hill
And the last we heard she was going still,
And she blew, blew, blew, blew, blew.

Youtube link 1

Youtube link 2 (Michael Holliday)

Youtube link 3 (Vernon Dalhart)

A real run-away train in the news. Listen to this and practise understanding spoken American English.

Example 5: Woman wants to get married

To know that your hand is against every one's is—for some natures—to experience a sense of moral release. Fleur felt no remorse when she left June's house. Reading condemnatory resentment in her little kinswoman's blue eyes - she was glad that she had fooled her, despising June because that elderly idealist had not seen what she was after. End it, forsooth! She would soon show them all that she was only just beginning. And she smiled to herself on the top of the bus which carried her back to Mayfair. But the smile died, squeezed out by spasms of anticipation and anxiety. Would she be able to manage Jon? She had taken the *** bit between her teeth ***, but could she make him take it too? She knew the truth and the real danger of delay—he knew neither; therein lay all the difference in the world.
Source: John Galsworthy (1867-1933): "The Forsyte Saga"


  • "Your hand is against everyone's hand" = what you can do or want to do is against what everyone else wants you to do. "your hand" are the cards you hold in a game of playing cards. They determine, together with your skill, whether you will or will not be successful in this game.
  • Fleur (French for "flower") is a woman's name.
  • "forsooth" (literally "for truth"), old-fashioned exclamation: "indeed", "by God", "wallahi".
  • "End it, forsooth!" = on the contrary, she would not end it.
  • sooth: old-fashioned word for "truth"; hence soothsayer (literally "truth sayer"), a person who can predict the future, a "fortune teller"

I do not know the story but I suppose it has something to do with a marriage which Fleur is planning. Perhaps with Jon. She is dermined to make it happen (= she has taken the bit between her teeth). Other people disapprove of her plans. She has to get married quickly. Otherwise there will be trouble for her. To resist other people you need to have the bit between your teeth. If you remain passive, you will not succeed.

Example 6: Woman wants to get married

All which was rather strong language on the part of a young lady, but was thought by those other young ladies at Castle Richmond to show the very essence of becoming young-ladyhood. They pronounced Clara to be perfect in feeling and in judgment, and Herbert could not find it in his heart to contradict them.

And of all these doings, writings, and resolves, Clara dutifully told her mother. Poor Lady Desmond was at her wits' end in the matter. She could scold her daughter, but she had no other power of doing anything. Clara had so taken the bit between her teeth that it was no longer possible to check her with any usual rein. In these days young ladies are seldom deprived by force of paper, pen, and ink; and the absolute incarceration of such an offender would be still more unusual. Another countess would have taken her daughter away, either to London and a series of balls, or to the South of Italy, or to the family castle in the North of Scotland; but poor Lady Desmond had not the power of other countesses.

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "Castle Richmond"

Note: Clara is determined to marry Herbert. She has been exchanging letters (paper, pen, and ink) with Herbert. Her mother strongly disapproves of Clara's wishes. But what can she do to break up the relationship? She can, in these modern times (1815-1882), not lock up her daughter, she cannot take away pen and paper, she can not send her abroad, all established methods used by parents to stop their children from persuing objectionable relationships. The mother could do nothing because her daughter had taken the bit between her teeth, i.e. because she was so determined.


Example 7: Woman wants to get married

The new tidings were not long in reaching Desmond Court, and the countess was all alone when she first heard them. With very great difficulty, taking as it were the *** bit between her teeth ***, Clara had managed to get over to Castle Richmond that she might pay a last visit to the Fitzgerald girls. At this time Lady Desmond's mind was in a terribly distracted state.

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "Castle Richmond"

Note: This is another example from the same story. Again Clara has taken the bit between her teeth. This time her behaviour was more like that of a runaway horse. She had visited Castle Richmond against the will of her mother.

Example 8:

"It's all over now," she said.
"As how, Miss Stanbury?"
"As how! She's given you an answer; hasn't she?"
"Yes, Miss Stanbury, she has given me an answer. But it has occurred to me that young ladies are sometimes,—perhaps a little—"
"She means it, Mr. Gibson; you may take my word for that. She is quite in earnest. She can take the *** bit between her teeth *** as well as another, though she does look so mild and gentle. She's a Stanbury all over."
"And must this be the last of it, Miss Stanbury?"
"Upon my word, I don't know what else you can do,—unless you send the Dean and Chapter to talk her over. She's a pig-headed, foolish young woman;—but I can't help that. The truth is, you didn't make enough of her at first, Mr. Gibson. You thought the plum would tumble into your mouth."

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "He Knew He Was Right"

Example 9

"I am only the more proud of her;—and of myself."

"When she was told of all that he had to give in the way of wealth and rank, she took the *** bit between her teeth *** and would not be turned an inch. Of course she was in love."

"I hope she may never regret it;—that is all."

"She must change her nature first. Everything she sees at Monkhams will make her stronger in her choice. With all her girlish ways, she is like a rock;—nothing can move her."

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "He Knew He Was Right"

Example 10

"Father Jerome can do little or nothing if she has the *** bit between her teeth ***," said Lotta. "She is as obstinate as a mule when she pleases. She is not like other girls. You cannot frighten her out of anything."

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "Nina Balatka"


  • Father Jerome is an Anglican or Roman Catholic priest. "Father" is the title of such priests.
  • "obstinate as a mule" is a useful idiom. Mules have a reputation for being very obstinate. People who have the bit between their teeth are also very obstinate. It is very apt of Trollope to compage The girl to a mule, because mules are relatives of horses, and mules and horses normally have bits (but not usually between their teeth).

Example of 11

But then Ludovic understood nothing about such matters; and had, moreover, a habit, inherited from his father, of taking the *** bit between his teeth *** whenever he suspected interference. Drive him gently without pulling his mouth about, and you might take him anywhere, almost at any pace; but a smart touch, let it be ever so slight, would bring him on his haunches, and then it might be a question whether you could get him another mile that day. So that on the whole Lady Lufton thought that the other plan would be the best. I have no doubt that Lady Lufton was right.

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "Framley Parsonage"

Note: Lady Lufton wants Ludovic, a young man, to do something or other. I have not read the novel, therefore I do not know what. But in order to get him to do what you want, you have to approach him very gently, so that he does not notice that you want him to do something different from what HE wants. You must not hit him ("smart touch") like a horse, you must not "pull his mouth about" (like a horse when you pull the reins). The "haunches" of a horse are like the buttocks of a human being.

So, if you try to control him like a horse, with the bit in the gap of his teeth, and if he notices that, then he will "take the bit between his teeth" and he will resist with all his might. You will have trouble to make him walk for one mile in a day, to say nothing of ten or fifteen miles.

You notice in this passage that it uses not only the expression of "bit between the teeth" but several other expressions comparing this human being to a horse and how to treat it.

Example 12

"Eames," said Sir Raffle, "that must be nonsense;—that must be nonsense. There can be no reason why you should always expect to have your own way in everything."
"Of course if I go without leave I shall be dismissed."
"Of course you will. It is out of the question that a young man should take the *** bit between his teeth *** in that way."
"As for taking the *** bit between his teeth *** , Sir Raffle, I do not think that any man was ever more obedient, perhaps I should say more submissive, than I have been. But there must be a limit to everything."

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "The Last Chronicle of Barset"

Example 13

Cicero begins the second book of the Tusculans by telling us that Neoptolemus liked to do a little philosophy now and then, but never too much at a time. With himself the matter was different: "In what else is there that I can do better?" Then he takes the *** bit between his teeth *** and rushes away with it. The reader feels that he would not stop him if he could. He does little, indeed, for philosophy; but so much for literature that he would be a bold man who would want to have him otherwise employed.

Source: Anthony Trollope (1815-1882): "The Life of Cicero"

Note: Cicero thinks he is good at philosophy and says so. Then he starts writing fast and a lot (i.e. he takes the bit between his teeth), and there is no stopping him (like a runaway horse). What Cicero wrote about philosophy was not important for philosophy, but it was very good for literature. (Similarly some people say: What psychologist Sigmund Freud wrote was not good psychology but very good and entertaining literature.)

Exercise 14

The transition wasn't very clear to Benham. His mind had been preoccupied by the problem of how to open his own large project. Meanwhile Prothero got, as it were, the conversational *** bit between his teeth *** and bolted. He began to say the most shocking things right away, so that Benham's attention was caught in spite of himself.

Source: H G Wells (1866-1946): "The Research Magnificent"

Note: Normally in a conversation, you have to control yourself a little. Do not immediately say everything that comes into your mind. You must be careful not to say things which upset the other people present (do not say things which shock them too much), or if they are powerful or very conservative, do not shock them at all, do not say things which get YOU into trouble. In other words, always remember the bit IN THE GAP of your teeth. But Prothero did not observice this restriction. He started saying whatever he wanted, and it was impossible to stop him, like it is impossible to stop a horse which has the bit between his teeth and is bolting.

Examples from the Internet

Example 15

Consumer Journalist of the Year Jeff Prestridge was also highly commended in the Consumer Columnist category for 2011. 'This journalist is a legend. It is impossible for anyone to describe Jeff as a pussy cat when he gets the *** bit between his teeth *** on certain issues'. 'I really like his campaigning style of writing; he picks up on money-related and even wider social themes which are often so important to such a wide number of people up and down the UK.'


Example 16

Santorum, however, has just gone up on the air with a strong negative ad linking Romney to Obama. And he appears to have both the *** bit between his teeth *** and his dander up when it comes to Gingrich.



  • This refers to the run-up to the American election.
  • dander = anger; he has his dander up = he is angry

Exercise 17

First, it is inevitable that Romney will win the nomination, mainly because his opponents are even weaker than he his; Santorum and Gingrich are incapable of keeping their feet out of their mouths for more than about 5 minutes and Ron Paul's supporters, though fervent, are too few to gain him the nomination. The way that Santorum self-destructed as soon as he got *** the bit between his teeth *** after his recent caucus victories is instructive.

from The Guardian, London


  • As soon as Santorum felt secure because of his caucus victories, he made stupid mistakes which harmed him.
  • to self-destruct = to destroy yourself

Exercise 18

Some operations officials, including Lady, had lobbied against the caper, arguing that Italian counterterrorism police were doing just fine against al-Qaeda in Milan. The Milan team had been warned against using cell phones by other CIA managers.

But Castelli had the *** bit between his teeth *** . So did Kappes, who as chief of operations would have given the ill-fated operation his seal of approval.

In the wake of the Milan disaster, Castelli, ..., was removed from Rome.


Exercise 19

Ed Miliband has really got *** the bit between his teeth *** on bankers' pay, and he will give an address this morning calling for curbs on bonuses at banks that have not required government bail-outs.


Note: From the UK parliament. Ed Miliband is the leader of the opposition (2012).

Exercise 20

Dahl did nothing to help matters by growing even more combative and being provoked into making outrageous, inflammatory responses. He was not in the least chastened by all that was being said about him. On the contrary, he expounded on his views and riled the press by being abrasive and dismissing their questions out of hand. There was no way of putting a gag on him and no point in asking him to cool things down. He had *** the bit between his teeth *** and nothing would stop him giving our adversaries all the fuel they could have wished for to keep their engines firing.



"did nothing to help matters": This is a typical understatement. You state the negative instead of the positive. "He did nothing to help matters" = "He made matters worse." He tried to help but by doing it stupidly, he gave fuel (ammunition) to his enemies.

Similarly you could say: "He was not brillant" when you mean "He was bad"

Exercise 21

Samantha Spiro did an OK job with Beatrice, but it wasn't until after the interval that she really seemed to get *** the bit between her teeth *** . She clowns well, but there was little of the light and shade that Zoe Wannamaker achieved with the role back in December 2007 at the National. She was essentially a merry Beatrice rather than one with healed-over wounds, and only occasionally threw any kind of weight into the part.


Note: This is from a review of a performance of Shakespeare's play "Much Ado About Nothing" (= Much noise about nothing = a storm in a tea cup (idiom) )

Example 22

Sharon Maughan curses like a sailor, which surprises me. ‘F***ing this.’ ‘Bl**dy that.’ Hang on, isn’t she supposed to be a bit too posh to swear? After all, this is the star of the phenomenally successful Eighties Nescafé Gold Blend TV adverts and elegant wife of actor Trevor Eve.

But it seems not. Or not when she’s got *** the bit between her teeth *** , which she has now. ‘It’s hard being a woman,’ she says. ‘Harder than ever. It’s a bl**dy short window between the bloom of youth when you’re gorgeous and men want you, to when you have a child and change. Ageing is a bummer – suddenly, you look at your bits and it’s a rocky road to the ruin we recognise so well.’

In truth, Sharon’s bits seem to be in all the right places. She’s 61 but could easily pass for a decade younger with her trim tummy and long legs. She’s also blessed with a sharp mind and a sharper sense of humour.


Example 23

Nichola Garvey is one of Australia’s most exciting up and coming non-fiction authors. She draws inspiration from exceptional yet untold Australian stories, illuminating the tough and gritty character of the nation. Her first book, Beating the Odds, comes after a career in research and a Masters degree in professional writing at UTS. With an uncanny ear for a good story and an ability to get *** the bit between her teeth *** she delivers unique narratives with spirit and insight. Nichola is a keen philanthropist dedicating time and resources to worthy causes, particularly young homelessness.


If your English is really very very good, then you could try to read about the two English women who have taken the bit between their teeth.

  • Shakespeare's play: "The Taming of a Shrew", the very sad story of a woman who was not allowed to keep the bit between her teeth, and
  • Chaucer's "The Wife of Bath's Tale" about a woman who managed to subdue five husbands (in succession) and have a lot of fun along the way - but only when SHE wanted it..

Teachers tell you WHAT to learn, IDYLL (R) shows you HOW to learn it.