Every year new expressions and sayings enter the public vocabulary, and old ones lose popularity and fall by the wayside. But some idioms have immense sticking power and have kept kicking around for hundreds – if not thousands – of years. Many of these old-timers allude to the most fundamental of human concepts: our own bodies.
And teeth, being that one strange part of our body that almost everyone will eventually lose yet manage to live without, are a particularly potent icon. Like bones we can see, our overall health can sometimes be inferred from how we treat and care for these important tools. In this era of dentures and teeth implants, we may forget how pivotal teeth were to the many generations of humans that came before us.
With that in mind, let’s take a glance at the origin and meaning of the long-lived and hard-hitting sayings that reference our teeth to describe how we interact with the world. You may find some surprising or enlightening, while others may be downright distasteful!
A Tooth For A Tooth
This classic expression has stood the test of time due in large part to its inclusion in the Old Testament. Along with the eyes, demanding a tooth be given for each one taken was a visceral demand for compensatory justice; an idea that was later made more grisly with Shakespeare’s “pound of flesh”. In essence, you not only must be punished exactly proportional for your crimes (but no more than that either), but punished out of your own body if needs be.
Getting Long In The Tooth
It’s not human teeth this particular saying refers to, but horses. For a long time it was believed you could tell the age of a horse by its teeth due to a shallow groove that appears around 10 years old, and slowly travels down the length of the tooth as it appears to “grow out”, until it disappears again in the horse’s old age. Therefore, someone whose teeth have grown that long, must be pretty darn old. In reality, receding gums and a horse’s natural teeth variation play havoc with this system of aging, but a best guess is often better than none.
As Rare As Hens’ Teeth
Well, that’s simple enough, as hens don’t have teeth. The saying might have been on more shaky ground if it had been about geese teeth – dentists would disagree that these structures on a goose’s beak count as teeth, but if you were bitten by one I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate the difference!
By The Skin Of Your Teeth
Most wouldn’t recognise this as another saying with biblical origin, where the first instance of it was used to describe an escape with nothing at all, except one’s life. Since then, it has come to mean something avoided or achieved by an almost infinitesimally tiny margin. If you want to consider enamel the “skin” of your teeth, you will appreciate just how thin a margin that must be.
Bare Your Teeth
Some people smile without showing a sign of their pearly whites, but others are blessed with gummy and toothy smiles, and proud to flash them around. What appears to us humans as an expression of friendly openness is almost universally a bad sign in the animal kingdom. Showing another creature your teeth is a sign of extreme aggression, because it suggests you’re about to use them!
Bite Off More Than You Can Chew
Is there anyone out there that hasn’t experienced the origin of this amusing saying for themselves? Often with a big piece of cake or ice cream, and hopefully not with a huge chunk of leathery steak. What was expected to be a delightful mouthful becomes an arduous undertaking flavoured with regret.
As Bad As Pulling Teeth
Fairly self-explanatory! Anyone who has had the misfortune to experience pulled teeth will surely have a shudder of pity for those put in any remotely similar situation. This is often said about occurrences that are only a truly awful experience, but also likely to be irreversible once they’re done. Though sometimes, people look at the silver lining that once the offending teeth are pulled and gone, they can’t cause any more pain and suffering.
Give Your Eyeteeth For It
The eyeteeth are another name for the canines, and were once believed to be connected by nerves to the eye itself. Your canine teeth are particularly important for the cutting action of tearing your food into bite-sized portions, before the molars come into play to grind it down into digestible paste. Losing your canines makes your bite more impotent, your smile particularly silly-looking, and was believed to be bad for the eyes as well, hence anything you would lose them for would have to be very important indeed.
Lie Through Your Teeth
In the present day, this idiom usually means a lie told through a smile; in other words the act of a very practiced or unrepentant liar. Sometimes it is a forced grin that is referred to. In its origins in the 14th Century, however, the saying was not referring to the liar’s teeth but those of the person they spoke to. Thus one lied in someone’s teeth, just as we would not say lied in (or to) someone’s face.
To Fight Tooth And Nail
To fight with ones teeth and fingernails is the last defence a human has after all other weapons are lost and swinging room for punches has diminished. It’s the brief and fragile moments that decide if you live or die, and it can all come down to how willing you are to use your teeth on a living creature; another example of how potent an image teeth provide.
Sink Your Teeth Into It
You may be surprised to learn that the human jaw has an average crushing power of about 170 pounds (85kg)! And your teeth are the point where all this force leaves your body and enters whatever unfortunate thing you’re biting. Indeed, the strength of your teeth is the deciding factor in how hard you can bite; the pain of unfamiliar pressure will put you off long before your jaw muscles give out. Putting your teeth into something wholeheartedly is a great way to make an impact.
Set Your Teeth On Edge
Another figure of speech with an old, biblical and Shakespearian lineage, something that sets your teeth on edge is readily recognized to be something incredibly annoying or vexing. But the original usage referred to the sensation of acid on the teeth, such as when eating acidic or vinegared foods like citrus and pickles. Perhaps the connecting factor is that when you tense up your jaw and mouth in annoyance, your teeth may tingle or become a little numb – similar to when you’ve eaten a particularly sour grape!
Got Teething Problems
It’s a painful thing for a baby’s first teeth to grow out, and sometimes even for the adult teeth that come in sporadically in later years. ‘Teething problems’ is the term used for problems, annoyances and hiccups that occur as someone begins to do something new to them, which are expected to go away as they become accustomed or experienced with the task in question.
A Kick In The Teeth
You may be more familiar with an alternative expression with the same meaning – to be kicked while you’re already down. The only way someone’s foot is going to easily come in contact with your teeth is if your head is on the ground. And kicking you at that point is very unsporting, not to mention probably extremely painful. This is a saying often reserved for life’s worst moments.
Looking a Gift Horse in the Mouth
This analogy refers to the practice of checking a horse’s teeth to determine their age and thus its value. When receiving a gift, you should be thankful for it rather than be seen to be wishing for more by assessing its worth.
To Have a Sweet Tooth
This figure of speech refers to the craving or desire to eat large amounts of sweet things like candy, cakes, ice cream, pastries or anything with a sweet flavour. An example would be if you just can’t seem to get enough chocolate or candy. While we all know candy isn't great for our teeth and too much can lead to a trip to the dentist, some of these sweet treats can also stain our teeth.
We hope you enjoyed this list of teeth idioms, proverbs and sayings and understand a little bit more about where they originated from and what they mean. If you have any more you would like to see added to this list, feel free to contact us.