Dentistry in a Word
An adaptation of A Man of My Words and Lederer On Language
Richard Lederer, PhD, is an English teacher for the ages. He is a word wizard, sentence sage, paragraph paragon, punctuation perfectionist, etymology expert, lexicon legend, and self proclaimed “verbivore.“ After teaching English in the classroom of St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire for 27 years, he shared his favorite student “bloopers” and other writing blunders in a book titled Anguished English. This experience was enough for Dr. Lederer to realize that he might have impact with his teaching beyond the classroom if he wrote more books. Dr. Lederer summarizes his life’s work since the late 1980s in this short biographical sketch:
“Richard Lederer is the author of more than 40 books about language, history, and humor, including his best-selling Anguished English series and his current books, The Gift of Age, A Tribute to Teachers, American Trivia, and Amazing Words. He has been profiled in magazines as diverse as The New Yorker, People, and the National Enquirer, and was founding co-host of “A Way With Words” on public radio. Dr. Lederer’s observations on language appear in magazines throughout the United States, and Lederer on Language appears each Saturday in the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has been elected International Punster of the Year and Toastmasters International’s Golden Gavel winner. He makes approximately 100 appearances per year and feels at home in almost any venue. Richard Lederer is the proud father of professional poker players, Howard Lederer and Annie Duke, and poet/memoirist, Katy Lederer. Richard and his wife, Simone van Egeren, live in San Diego.”
Any reader of Inside Dentistry who enjoys reading, writing, words, humor, history, and the joys of our English language will enjoy Lederer’s writings. Learn more about Dr. Richard Lederer and his works by exploring his website: www.verbivore.com. Dr. Lederer first shared the contributions that teeth and dentistry have made to the English language in A Man of My Words.1 More recently, he devoted a chapter in Lederer On Language2 to etymologies of teeth and dentistry words and expressions. Dr. Lederer has graciously consented to having an adaptation of those writings published in Inside Dentistry.
The Tooth, the Whole Tooth, and Nothing but the Tooth
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.
A number of 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 the 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. They are also called 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.
We call a comb a comb because the name descends fom the Greek word gomphios, meaning “tooth, molar.” Thus, a fine-tooth comb is somewhat of a redundancy.
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 parts of the country, Italian sandwiches are called grinders because it takes a good set of teeth to eat them. Pasta should be cooked al dente, “to the tooth”—in other words, cooked just enough to retain a somewhat firm texture for the teeth. Spanish cookbooks call for using a diente from a cabeza of garlic—that is, a “tooth” from a “head” of garlic.
Teeth are often associated with duplicity. We talk about people who lie through their teeth, that is, who force themselves to assume a calm demeanor that will conceal their true feelings. They display a hearty smile, baring and clenching their teeth as a means of controlling their emotions and pretending that butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths. Closely related is the expression to laugh on the wrong side of one’s mouth, which originally meant to laugh in a forced way, perhaps by opening only one corner of the mouth. “Which side of the mouth is the wrong side?” we wonder.
Many phrases from the Book of Job in the Old Testament have become proverbial in our language: “Naked came I from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return;” “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away;” and “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, centuries of Bible reading have given the expression a permanent place in our language as a description of a close escape. Many interpret the skin in skin of my teeth to refer to the enamel covering the teeth, a film as thin as Job’s margin of safety.
As with dandelion, animals and teeth converge in mastodon, the name we assign to those lumbering pre-elephants. Mastodon is cobbled from the Greek mastos, “breast,” (as in mastectomy) and odont, “tooth,” as in orthodontia (“correct teeth”). Mastodons are so named for the nipplelike protuberances on their molars. Rats, mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and beavers get their Latin name, Rodentia, from their teeth. Given these creatures’ proclivity to chew, it’s no surpise that they get their family name from the verb “to gnaw.”
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 chunk, or small bite, out of the beginning. Indenture, from the same root, strictly means “a document with serrated edges,” referring to the once-common practice of cutting contracts into halves with jagged edges—one half for each party in agreement. By fitting the edges together, one could authenticate the document.
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 ready for the glue factory.
Still, it is considered bad manners to inspect the teeth of a horse that has been given to you and, by extension, to inquire too closely into the cost or value of any gift. Now you know the origin of don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, one of our oldest proverbs, whinnying back at least 1,500 years.
If, on the other hoof, you decide to pay money to a horse trader, you are advised to determine whether it is a young stud or an old nag by examining the teeth and obtaining your information straight from the horse’s mouth, precisely where responsible word searchers should look.
1. Lederer R. Etymological snapshots. In: A Man of My Words. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2003:154-157.
2. Lederer R. Toothsome etymologies. In: Lederer On Language. Portland, Oregon: Marion Street Press, 2013:108-111.