bite off more than one can chew

verb (used with object), bit, bit·ten or bit, bit·ing.

  1. to cut, wound, or tear with the teeth: She bit the apple greedily. The lion bit his trainer.
  2. to grip or hold with the teeth: Stop biting your lip!
  3. to sting, as does an insect.
  4. to cause to smart or sting: an icy wind that bit our faces.
  5. to sever with the teeth (often followed by off): Don’t bite your nails. The child bit off a large piece of the candy bar.
  6. to start to eat (often followed by into): She bit into her steak.
  7. to clamp the teeth firmly on or around (often followed by on): He bit hard on the stick while they removed the bullet from his leg.
  8. Informal.
    1. to take advantage of; cheat; deceive: I got bitten in a mail-order swindle.
    2. to annoy or upset; anger: What’s biting you, sorehead?
  9. to eat into or corrode, as does an acid.
  10. to cut or pierce with, or as with, a weapon: The sword split his helmet and bit him fatally.
  11. Etching. to etch with acid (a copper or other surface) in such parts as are left bare of a protective coating.
  12. to take firm hold or act effectively on: We need a clamp to bite the wood while the glue dries.
  13. Archaic. to make a decided impression on; affect.

verb (used without object), bit, bit·ten or bit, bit·ing.

  1. to press the teeth into something; attack with the jaws, bill, sting, etc.; snap: Does your parrot bite?
  2. Angling. (of fish) to take bait: The fish aren’t biting today.
  3. to accept an offer or suggestion, especially one intended to trick or deceive: I knew it was a mistake, but I bit anyway.
  4. Informal. to admit defeat in guessing: I’ll bite, who is it?
  5. to act effectively; grip; hold: This wood is so dry the screws don’t bite.
  6. Slang. to be notably repellent, disappointing, poor, etc.; suck.


  1. an act of biting.
  2. a wound made by biting: a deep bite.
  3. a cutting, stinging, or nipping effect: the bite of an icy wind; the bite of whiskey on the tongue.
  4. a piece bitten off: Chew each bite carefully.
  5. a small meal: Let’s have a bite before the theater.
  6. a portion severed from the whole: the government’s weekly bite of my paycheck.
  7. a morsel of food: not a bite to eat.
  8. the occlusion of one’s teeth: The dentist said I had a good bite.
  9. Machinery.
    1. the catch or hold that one object or one part of a mechanical apparatus has on another.
    2. a surface brought into contact to obtain a hold or grip, as in a lathe chuck or similar device.
    3. the amount of material that a mechanical shovel or the like can carry at one time.
  10. sharpness; incisiveness; effectiveness: The bite of his story is spoiled by his slovenly style.
  11. the roughness of the surface of a file.
  12. Metalworking. the maximum angle, measured from the center of a roll in a rolling mill, between a perpendicular and a line to the point of contact where a given object to be rolled will enter between the rolls.
  1. bite off more than one can chew, to attempt something that exceeds one’s capacity: In trying to build a house by himself, he bit off more than he could chew.
  2. bite/snap someone’s head off, to respond with anger or impatience to someone’s question or comment: He’ll bite your head off if you ask for anything.
  3. bite the bullet. bullet(def 7).
  4. bite the dust. dust(def 21).
  5. bite the hand that feeds one, to repay kindness with malice or injury: When he berates his boss, he is biting the hand that feeds him.
  6. put the bite on, Slang.
    1. to solicit or attempt to borrow money or something of value from.
    2. to press for money, as in extortion: They found out about his prison record and began to put the bite on him.

verb bites, biting, bit or bitten

  1. to grip, cut off, or tear with or as if with the teeth or jaws
  2. (of animals, insects, etc) to injure by puncturing or tearing (the skin or flesh) with the teeth, fangs, etc, esp as a natural characteristic
  3. (tr) to cut or penetrate, as with a knife
  4. (of corrosive material such as acid) to eat away or into
  5. to smart or cause to smart; stingmustard bites the tongue
  6. (intr) angling (of a fish) to take or attempt to take the bait or lure
  7. to take firm hold of or act effectively upon
  8. to grip or hold (a workpiece) with a tool or chuck
  9. (of a screw, thread, etc) to cut into or grip (an object, material, etc)
  10. (tr) informal to annoy or worrywhat’s biting her?
  11. (often passive) slang to cheat
  12. (tr often foll by for) Australian and NZ slang to ask (for); scrounge from
  13. bite off more than one can chew informal to attempt a task beyond one’s capability
  14. bite the bullet to face up to (pain, trouble, etc) with fortitude; be stoical
  15. bite someone’s head off to respond harshly and rudely (to)
  16. bite the dust See dust (def. 11)
  17. bite the hand that feeds one to repay kindness with injury or ingratitude
  18. once bitten, twice shy after an unpleasant experience one is cautious in similar situations
  19. put the bite on someone Australian slang to ask someone for money


  1. the act of biting
  2. a thing or amount bitten off
  3. a wound, bruise, or sting inflicted by biting
  4. angling an attempt by a fish to take the bait or lure
  5. informal an incisive or penetrating effect or qualitythat’s a question with a bite
  6. a light meal; snack
  7. a cutting, stinging, or smarting sensation
  8. the depth of cut of a machine tool
  9. the grip or hold applied by a tool or chuck to a workpiece
  10. dentistry the angle or manner of contact between the upper and lower teeth when the mouth is closed naturally
  11. the surface of a file or rasp with cutting teeth
  12. the corrosive action of acid, as on a metal etching plate

Old English bitan (class I strong verb; past tense bat, past participle biten), from Proto-Germanic *bitan (cf. Old Saxon bitan, Old Norse and Old Frisian bita, Middle Dutch biten, Dutch bijten, German beissen, Gothic beitan “to bite”), from PIE root *bheid- “to split, crack” (see fissure).

To bite the bullet is said to be 1700s military slang, from old medical custom of having the patient bite a lead bullet during an operation to divert attention from pain and reduce screaming. Figurative use from 1891; the custom itself attested from 1840s. To bite (one’s) tongue “refrain from speaking” is 1590s. To bite the dust “die” is 1750 (Latin had the same image; cf. Virgil: procubuit moriens et humum semel ore momordit). To bite off more than one can chew (c.1880) is U.S. slang, from plug tobacco.


c.1200, from bite (v).


  1. To cut, grip, or tear with the teeth.
  2. To pierce the skin of with the teeth, fangs, or mouthparts.


  1. The act of biting.
  2. A puncture or laceration of the skin by the teeth of an animal or the mouthparts of an insect or similar organism.

Take on more work or a bigger task than one can handle, as in With two additional jobs, Bill is clearly biting off more than he can chew. Cautions against taking on too much appear in medieval sources, although this particular metaphor, alluding to taking in more food than one can chew, dates only from about 1870.

In addition to the idioms beginning with bite

  • bite off more than one can chew
  • bite one’s nails
  • bite one’s tongue
  • bite someone’s head off
  • bite the bullet
  • bite the dust
  • bite the hand that feeds you

also see:

  • bark is worse than one’s bite
  • put the bite on
  • sound bite

Also seebitten.

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