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Hypothetical example usage:

"Another one bites the dust." He said as he watched another building burn to the ground.

It just means that something is destroyed. What does biting dust have to do with destruction? Where did that saying come from?

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This is just conjecture, hence comment not answer... but if you get hit with something powerful enough to kill you, you will probably scream. Mouth open. You will die this way and hit the ground. When you hit the ground, you get a face full of dirt (dust). Bonus points if the ground closes your mouth on the way down. –  corsiKa Mar 13 '11 at 22:00
    
Also of note: the way it's said in your blockquote is also a reference to the famous Queen song by the same name. –  Callithumpian Jul 6 '11 at 4:55
    
@Cal Beyond the name, I fail to see the reference here... –  John Jul 6 '11 at 16:24

4 Answers 4

up vote 13 down vote accepted

"To bite the dust" means to die or to fail (see e.g. Wiktionary). Picture someone falling down, wounded or dead, quite literally biting the dust (soil, ground, earth). Etymonline says that the first recorded appearance of the phrase is from 1750. The Phrase Finder supplies it as follows:

The earliest citation of the 'bite the dust' version [of the earlier phrase 'lick the dust', from the Bible] is from 1750 by the Scottish author Tobias Smollett , in his Adventures of Gil Blas of Santillane:

"We made two of them bite the dust, and the others betake themselves to flight."

[...]

[Samuel Butler's 19th century translation of Homer's The Iliad] contains a reference to 'bite the dust' in these lines:

"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."

Whether that can be counted as an 8th century BC origin for 'bite the dust' is open to question and some would say that it was Butler's use of the phrase rather than Homer's.

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Re the Butler Iliad example, I’d be interested to know how literal the translation is. Any Greek scholars around, or anyone with another translation to cross-reference? –  PLL Mar 13 '11 at 21:05
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On the Homeric origin: the original text has "...πολέες δ᾽ ἀμφ᾽ αὐτὸν ἑταῖροι//πρηνέες ἐν κονίῃσιν ὀδὰξ λαζοίατο γαῖαν"; another translation gives ...fall headlong in the dust, and bite the earth which is a more literal rendering of the original. So, while it's close, I'm with the "some" that "would say" on this one ;-) –  psmears Mar 13 '11 at 21:28
    
The Dictionary of the French Academy (Dictionnaire de l'Académie Française) also reports the French literal translation in 1694. See Google Books scan: "On dit aussi poétiquement , qu'on a fait mordre la poussière a son ennemy , pour dire , qu'on l'a abattu, qu'on l'a tué". –  Alain Pannetier Φ Mar 13 '11 at 22:14

The phrase was originally applied solely to humans who, as others have noted, might literally end up with a mouthful of dirt as they fall to the ground in battle. It has since taken on a more figurative sense and can refer equally to all manner of inanimate fails:

bite the dust informal be killed : and the bad guys bite the dust with lead in their bellies.
figurative fail; come to an end : she hoped the new program would not bite the dust for lack of funding.

I found this antedating of bite the dust from a 1728 English translation of François Fénelon's Les Aventures de Télémaque:

http://books.google.com/books?id=m737W6Wc8qcC&pg=PA240&dq=%22bite+the+dust%22&hl=en&ei=CNsTTtONEYfk0QHxx_izDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CDIQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=%22bite%20the%20dust%22&f=false

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Through laden pack beasts and shifting clouds of churned earth, two travellers can be seen locked in combat. The desert air is dry and pierced with the calls of vultures. They have been on this road too long. Another challenger has risen to vie for leadership of the clan, the fourth in so many days.

As before, the leader's experience and sheer force of will overwhelm the opponent.
A sharp crack to the face sends him reeling backwards, twisting, falling, face-first in the dirt.

"Another one bites the dust," she spits, wearied.

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Must have some Morricone in the background here... –  mplungjan Mar 13 '11 at 20:56
    
Not sure how this answers the question. You are on a language usage forum, not entering a short story competition. –  Karl Apr 4 '11 at 16:39
    
@Karl: Are you seriously trying to claim that it doesn't explain how that idiom came into usage? –  intuited Apr 4 '11 at 18:22
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+1 for showing how easy it is to create / recreate the trivial metaphoric usage. If it takes people's fancy, they'll repeat it, without worrying too much that it won't be understood. Hardly your dyed-in-the-wool opaque idiom, in my view. –  FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 4:24

According to some Spanish sources, the expression "morder el polvo" (literally translated: bite the dust/powder) - which means to die or to lose - comes from the "fact" that in the middle ages, when a knight was about to die, would put some dirt in his mouth as a way to express his love of the land. Seems more poetic than literal, but the expression is probably old as it exists in Spanish with a direct translation (but not that old). :)

Source Academic Dictionary (1970 edition) includes expression bite the dust to mean "pay, beat him in the fight, killing him or knocking him down."

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Do you have a source for this? –  IQAndreas Mar 2 at 19:33
    
Morder el polvo literally means bite the dust in Spanish. It may carry the implication of to die or to lose, but you need to be clearer for people who do not speak the language. –  David M Mar 2 at 22:22

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