teeth

There are several phrases built around teeth, as is true for other of our body parts. Here are five of them.

1. Sink your teeth into: to become completely involved in something, or to work energetically at a task.

The phrase is American in origin, and it’s easy to see where it came from. Sinking your teeth into something good is almost always preferable to gnawing on something bland.

2. Like pulling teeth: something quite difficult to do. An allied phrase is ‘like getting blood out of a stone.’

This phrase is commonly used when trying to get information from someone, and the details have to be painfully extracted one piece at a time. It’s likely been around since shortly after the invention of dentistry. 

The earliest use reported in Google Books is Godey’s Lady’s Book for October 1855: “Some people it’s like pulling teeth to collect from; they dodge and shuffle, and ask me to call again, until sometimes I am quite out of patience.”

3. Through gritted teeth: clenching your jaw because of your dislike of something, or your reluctance to do something.

4. Armed to the teeth: carrying the maximum number of weapons possible.

An oil painting by Pieter Bruegel, completed in 1559, was Netherlandish Proverbs. Bruegel populated this particular work, like several others, with literal versions of idioms of the day. The illustration for this one shows a man in metal armor holding a knife in his teeth.

The term was also used in the 1600s when pirates were attacking ships to loot them, and their guns were very primitive, allowing for only one shot before a lengthy reloading process. So, in addition to the ship’s guns, they carried a gun in each hand, and also perhaps in each pocket. Finally, they would also hold a knife between their teeth. 

The expression may also mean “armed all the way up to the neck and with the teeth above that,” since the teeth are in themselves a weapon in close-quarter fighting.

5. Get the bit between your teeth: take control of a situation, be aggressive in action. 

A bit is a mouthpiece that is used to control a horse’s movements. It is normally fitted so that pressure on the reins presses the bit against the soft parts of the horse’s mouth, causing it to turn its head. This expression alludes to a horse biting on the bit and taking control away from the rider.

The earliest known use of the phrase is in John Dryden’s satirical poem The Medal, 1682.

And I am about to go sink my teeth into bacon and eggs, my Sunday morning treat. An aggressive action, but not at all like pulling teeth.

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