more teeth

The five ‘teeth’ idioms we covered last time aren’t the only ones, of course. The most popular idioms in the language have to do with the human body, and with the animals and plants that we used to deal with all the time in everyday life. Here are more.

6. Lie through your teeth.

This usually means a lie told while smiling, the act of a practiced liar. It originated in the 14th century, though back then it was commonly ‘lie in his teeth.’ A sample of this is found in the History of New York (1812). ‘Lie through one’s teeth’ is found in the novel Love me or love me not by Mrs. Francis G. Faithfull (1875).

I’ll add this sample because I love the title: Poplollies & Bellibones/Tenderfeet & Ladyfingers: A Celebration of Lost Words/A Compendium of Body Language, suggests that lying through one’s teeth implies a (deceiving) smile.

7. Cut your teeth on.

This means to gain your first significant experience in some skill. A trained chef, for example, might have gotten his start (cut his teeth) flipping hamburgers.

The phrase refers to how babies get their first teeth. The teeth emerge, or cut, through the gums, often painfully. After all the teeth have emerged, the baby is equipped to chew solid food or, metaphorically, for chewing on more complex problems.

The OED lists instances of ‘cut’ in the context of emerging baby teeth from 1677 and 1694.

8. Set one’s teeth on edge.

To feel an irritating or unpleasant sensation, for example: “The noise of the machines sets my teeth on edge.”

This figure of speech dates back to the 14th century and is found both in Shakespeare and in Wyclif’s Bible in 1382. 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.

9. Give one’s eye teeth. 

To give something one considers very precious, usually in exchange for an object or situation one desires. “I’d give my eye teeth for that job!” Other things which may be given up are: right arm, last penny, firstborn, shirt, last drop of heart’s blood, life, and immortal soul.

Eye teeth are named so because the pair in the upper jaw lie directly below the eyes. These are pointed long teeth, also called canines because they look a bit like those in dogs.

Perhaps eye teeth are especially valuable, because of their association with eyes, which are extremely valuable. There’s no phrase which expresses the possibility of giving up eyes.

Carnivores, of which humans are one species, need canines to kill prey and to tear meat. We humans no longer use them to kill prey, but for those of you who love beefsteak, the eye teeth, or canines, are the most important. 

In 1836 The Way-Mark: In Which Some of the Turns of the Broad Road are Pointed Out says:

“Your real sea-dog will give his eye-teeth for a glass of grog; it is a fact, that many a tooth has been drawn in exchange for rum.”

It might be interesting to know what happened to those pulled teeth. Were they filled with gold?

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