The Grammarphobia Blog

A biting commentary

Q: My daughter recently texted “bite me” after I texted a suggestion she didn’t care for. While I understand the emotion she intended to convey, I find the phrase not only counterintuitive but just plain weird. Any idea of its source?

A: Your daughter was telling you, more or less, to leave her alone, but you knew that already. What you may not have known is that “bite me” is generally a variation on “bite my ass.”

Green’s Dictionary of Slang says that “bite me!” (many dictionaries print it with an exclamation point) means the same as “bite me in the ass.” The dictionary says it originated on American college campuses in the 1980s, and labels it an exclamation of a generally derogatory or dismissive nature.

Another source, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, lists “bite me” among expressions equivalent to “go to hell” or “fuck you” and that are “usu. considered vulgar.”  Included in the list are “bite my butt” (which Random House dates from 1958) and “bite me in the ass” (1963).

Some slang dictionaries interpret “bite me” as an invitation to fellatio. But unless there’s some reason to think otherwise, it’s likely that what’s supposed to be “bitten” is the butt.

The oldest examples in Green’s date from the late 1980s and early ’90s:

“The insult category consisted of … gaywad, bite me, doofy, dork, mutt” (from With the Boys, a 1987 study by the sociologist Gary A. Fine).

“Ah, bite me!” (from the 1991 screenplay of Wayne’s World, written by Mike Myers et al.).

The earliest example in Random House is from a 1992 episode of the sitcom Married With Children. Here’s the exchange: “Drop dead.” “Bite me!”

The linguist Pamela Munro’s Slang U. (1991), a book about campus colloquialisms, likens “bite me!” to “bite my ass.” She illustrates it with this example: “After Joe told Michele that he wanted to see other girls, all she said was, ‘Bite me!’ ”

Munro, a professor at UCLA, gives the expression a broad variety of meanings: “Shut up! You make me sick! Get out of here! Kiss my ass! Fuck you!” And she characterizes it as a usage that “may be offensive” and “should be used only with discretion.”

Publishers of standard American dictionaries don’t include “bite me” (with or without exclamation mark). Some British publishers have entries for it, but they give no literal definition, saying only how the phrase is used. And they label it “offensive” or merely “informal” rather than “vulgar” (as Random House does).

Cambridge Dictionaries online describes “bite me!” (including exclamation mark) as an American idiom that’s “offensive” and is “used to say to someone that they have made you feel angry or embarrassed.”

Another British dictionary, Longman’s, says “bite me!” is a “spoken informal” expression of American origin, “used to show that you are offended by something someone has just said about you.”

Oxford Dictionaries Online also labels “bite me” as “informal.” It’s used, the dictionary says, “to express defiance against or contempt for someone,” and this illustration is given: “it’s just my opinion; if you don’t like it, bite me!”

We agree that “bite me” has lost much of its old vulgarity. It’s rude and therefore offensive, but not dirty. In fact, it’s used quite often as a book title with no offense intended. Google it and you’ll find the phrase emblazoned unabashedly on the covers of books about cooking, dieting, and vampires.

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, hasn’t yet taken note of “bite me,” but it includes a couple of other “bite” idioms.

Used alone, the OED says, the verb “bite” means the same thing as “suck” in North American slang: “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant.”

The dictionary’s earliest example is from the September 1975 issue of the National Lampoon: “The activities on campus really bite.”

And in North American slang, Oxford adds, to “bite the big one” has two meanings that date from the 1970s: (1) “to be contemptible, awful, or unpleasant,” and (2) “to die.” Here are the OED‘s earliest examples (their meanings will be obvious from the context):

“I’m a big fan of society … but this bites the big one” (from David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, 1974).

“Larry’s not with us any more, he went on y’know. … He bit the big one” (the drummer Terry Bozzio, speaking during “What Ever Happened to All the Fun in the World,” a brief cut on Frank Zappa’s 1979 album Sheik Yerbouti).

As for its more distant etymology, “bite” came into early Old English (bítan) from Common Germanic, the OED says. And its original meaning is still the principal sense today: “To cut into, pierce, or nip (anything) with the teeth.”

The dictionary’s earliest known use of the verb is from the epic poem Beowulf, which may have been written as early as 725.

In the passage cited, the man-eating monster Grendel emerges from the misty moors by night and attacks a company of warriors quartered in a castle: “He gefeng hraðe … slǽpendne rinc … bát bánlocan” (“He quickly seized … a sleeping warrior … bit into his body”).

Grendel obviously would have interpreted “bite me” literally.

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