Believe it or not, March 6 annually marks National Dentists Day. Dentists might not be the most popular people, but we all need them to help us preserve sound oral health. My dentists will tell you that getting me to sit still in a dentist’s chair is like pulling teeth. As a born coward, I am simply unable to transcend dental medication. Nonetheless, the oral metaphors in our language provide a topic that I can really sink my teeth into.
You might think that expressions about teeth would be as scarce as hen’s teeth. (Hens, of course, don’t have any teeth.) But you don’t have to give your eyeteeth to come up with a lot of toothsome examples.
The eyeteeth are so called because they are located directly below the eyes in the upper jaw and are named canine teeth because they resemble the pointed teeth of dogs. As such, they are especially useful in holding and tearing food, and they are the most difficult and painful of teeth to extract. Thus, if you would give your eyeteeth for something, you are willing to go through a lot to relinquish something of great value.
The space I’ve left at the start of each paragraph in this column is an indentation. When we indent a paragraph (from the Latin dens, “tooth,” by way of the French dent), we take a small bite, out of the beginning. Indenture, from the same root, describes a document with serrated edges, referring to the once-common practice of cutting contracts into halves with jagged edges — one half for each party. By fitting the edges together, one could authenticate the document.
Teeth are often cited to indicate strength. We talk about an agreement that has teeth in it and being in the teeth of a battle fighting tooth and nail. We describe strong winds and sarcastic comments as “biting.”
Not surprisingly, teeth are also associated with matters culinary. We call some women toothsome, not because they possess prominent teeth, but because their appearance is pleasing to the palate of the eyes. In New England, Italian sandwiches are called grinders because it takes a good set of teeth to devour them. Pasta should be cooked al dente, “to the tooth” — that is, cooked just enough to retain a somewhat firm texture for the teeth.
From the biblical Book of Job we inherit “My bone cleaveth to my skin, and to my flesh, and I am escaped with the skin of my teeth.” This last phrase has been altered slightly to by the skin of my teeth. Despite objections that the teeth don’t have any skin, the expression has gained a permanent place in our language as a description of a close escape. The skin in skin of my teeth refers to the enamel covering the teeth, a film as thin as Job’s margin of safety.
Animals and teeth often converge. The English used to call the yellow, shaggy weed a “lion’s tooth” because the jagged, pointed leaves resemble the lion’s snarly grin. During the early 14th century, the lion’s-tooth plant took on a French flavor and became the dent-de-lion, “tooth-of-the-lion.” Then it acquired an English accent: dandelion.
Rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks and beavers get their Latin name, Rodentia, from their teeth. Given these creatures’ proclivity to chew, chew, chew, it’s no surprise that their family name derives from the classical verb “to gnaw.”
When we describe a golden ager as long in the tooth, we are reflecting the fact that our gums recede with age, thereby displaying more and more roots. It is the same with horses. The age and health of a horse can be ascertained by examining the condition and number of its teeth. Although an animal may appear young and frisky, a close inspection may reveal that it is long in the tooth and thus unsalable.
Still, it is considered bad manners to inspect the teeth of a horse that has been given to you. Now you know the origin of don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, one of our oldest proverbs, whinnying back at least 1500 years.
If, on the other hoof, you decide to pay money to a horse trader, you are advised to determine whether the animal is a young stud or an old nag by examining the teeth. Thus, you obtain your information straight from the horse’s mouth.