An alternative speculation attributed to D. Chandler is that the origin relates to the stem end of a cucumber, which is often bitter, especially in older varieties, giving the option of stopping short of the bitter end, or eating all the way to it.
OK, I can see this one coming: "The 'idiomatic' sense you give is incorrect. It's a corruption of the nautical sense by people who don't know a gunwale from a boatswain."
First, I'm not entirely convinced that the nautical derivation tells the whole story. Yes, I've heard it firsthand from a guide on a battleship at Portsmouth, and I don't doubt that the end of the rope is the bitts and the end of the rope is called the bitter end. What I doubt is that the term bitter end is so derived. The story fairly reeks of folk etymology. I would expect bitts end or such, but inflecting bitt or bitts to bitter seems unlikely. I can't think of a similar example, though there may well be one.
Much more likely this is a bit of black humor on the part of some sailor or sailors who noticed the similarity in sound and sometimes sense as well (it might well be a desparate situation when the rope pays out to the end), and that bitter end is just a pun that caught on because it's memorable. It's entirely possible that the phrase "bitter end" predates the nautical usage.
Even if the nautical derivation is the only one, and no one else started to use to the bitter end and related phrases until the nautical usage became established, the non-nautical usage is still legitimate. People use it in the (ironically more literal) idiomatic sense all the time with a well-known meaning, unaware of any possible connection to life at sea.
If this term becomes controversial, it would be just yet another example of terms taking on a life of their own, despite insistence by some that only one preferred sense is "correct". Other famous examples are decimate, podium, tidal wave and (doesn't it just figure) misnomer. It's an interesting phenomenon, and one that we've attempted to document in Wiktionary (see Category:English words affected by prescriptivism and its mammoth talk page), unfortunately without great success as there has been little consensus on how to characterize the phenomenon without stepping on various people's toes (mine included :-) -dmh 20:48, 13 Apr 2005 (UTC)
The nautical definition comes from "The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea". It's a pretty good source. SemperBlotto 21:15, 13 Apr 2005 (UTC)
- What exactly does it say? -dmh 02:01, 14 Apr 2005 (UTC)
- A bit more from random googling ("bitter end" bitts). The nautical term can be traced (at least) to 1627, in A Sea Grammere by Capt. John Smith (yes that John Smith):
A bitter is but the turne of a Cable about the bits [bitts, the stout posts on a ship's deck to which ropes and cables are fastened].... And the Bitters end is that part of the Cable doth stay within boord.
- On the other hand, the KJB (1611) has, in Proverbs 5:4:
But her end is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a twoedged sword.
- This seems pretty inconclusive to me, notes in dictionaries tend to be fairly equivocal as well. Again, no one is disputing the nautical usage, only that it's necessarily the origin of all uses of the phrase. -dmh 02:19, 14 Apr 2005 (UTC)
- Then there's this from Measure for Measure, which doesn't explicitly use bitter end but mentions a "sweet end" to be reached through bitter means.
Besides, he tells me that, if peradventure
He speak against me on the adverse side,
I should not think it strange; for 'tis a physic
That's bitter to sweet end.
- For that matter, I should mention the obvious: bitter in bitter end clearly means bitter in the usual sense of unhappy, and has nothing to do with ropes. -dmh 02:50, 14 Apr 2005 (UTC)