Tooth Metaphors and Their Origins

You may not put a lot of thought into your teeth if you're not brushing, flossing, or heading to the dentist, but they're an essential part of your anatomy and accomplish many different functions. In fact, teeth are so important and such a universal concept that they play a significant role in many common metaphors and phrases. If you think about it, you might find that you make many references to teeth that have nothing to do with your mouth at all.

Tooth Metaphors

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Exploring these toothy phrases offers some interesting insights into how we view teeth and the emotions and significance that they can carry.

By the Skin of Your Teeth

The metaphor of doing something "by the skin of your teeth" is one of the most puzzling of all the tooth-related phrases you may hear today. Used in conversation, accomplishing something by the skin of one's teeth means doing it just in time or finishing at the last possible moment. However, since teeth have no skin, it's quite a challenge to figure out where this phrase came from.

The origins are actually biblical, found in the book of Job. Job 19:20 reads "My bone clings to my skin and my flesh, and I have escaped only by the skin of my teeth." This is a direct translation of the Hebrew version of this verse, so it explains the source, if not the context.

Scholars have struggled to explain the phrase. Some believe that the skin of the teeth means the lips or the gums. In this light, the scripture might mean that Job's sufferings were so great that the only part to escape was his lips or his gums. However, the origins of the modern context of escaping by the skin of one's teeth may always be shrouded in a bit of mystery.

Sink Your Teeth into It

It makes sense that you would sink your teeth into a good steak or a delicious donut, but this tooth metaphor goes beyond edible items that you literally put in your mouth. Sinking your teeth into something means working energetically at a task. Things that you can proverbially sink your teeth into are generally more challenging and more satisfying. You might crave a new project that you can really sink your teeth into when you're bored with the daily grind.

The phrase is American in origin, and it's not difficult to see where it came from. Sinking your teeth into something good is almost always preferable to gnawing on something bland.

Long in the Tooth

Long in the tooth is an older phrase that's not as common in contemporary conversations. If something is long in the tooth, it's old and outdated. This might apply to roofing that needs an upgrade, or a piece of technology that's long since been replaced with a newer version. The phrase "long in the tooth" can apply to people as well, though it's not usually a flattering reference to use.

The origins of the metaphor don't come from human teeth, but from horses. Horses' gums recede as they age, so a horse with long teeth is older. Thus, a person or other item that's long in the tooth has enjoyed a long lifespan as well.

Like Pulling Teeth

If something is like pulling teeth, it's typically quite difficult to do. This phrase is commonly used in reference to getting information from someone, because the details are painfully extracted one piece at a time. This metaphor is easy to understand because it applies quite clearly to the physical act of pulling teeth. Any time something is laborious and perhaps a bit painful to complete, you can say that it's like pulling teeth.

Cutting Your Teeth

People often refer to cutting one's teeth on something when they talk about how someone acquired a skill. This phrase is applied to skills learned early in life, or those that provided one's first experience with something. Perhaps a pilot cut his teeth flying model airplanes, or the novelist cut his teeth on catalog copy. Another version of this phrase is to cut one's eyeteeth on something.

The phrase refers to how children get their first teeth. When a baby is cutting teeth, they're first emerging through the gums. Therefore, cutting your teeth on something as you learn a new skill refers to how your first experiences in this area emerged.

With Teeth

If you hear the phrase "with teeth," it's probably in reference to an argument. If you find a case or a phrase with teeth, you have one that can really bite. This argument is the exact opposite of something that's soft, uncertain, or unsubstantiated. When you're in a debate, the last thing you want is to encounter something with teeth.

The origins of the phrase return again to biting. If something has teeth, it can really leave a mark. When you extend the metaphor all the way to picturing something that can snap at you and do some damage, you'll really begin to understand what it means when there's something with teeth that you have to counter or argue down.

Through Gritted Teeth

Have you ever clenched your teeth in grim anticipation of something unpleasant? This describes perfectly what it means to do something through gritted teeth. If one complies through gritted teeth, or completes a task this way, it means that they're doing it grudgingly.

You don't have to literally grit your teeth as you're doing something to use this metaphor. However, it paints a vivid picture and may even have you clenching your jaw in sympathy when you read it. This phrase is a powerful choice when you want to convey someone's distaste and reluctance for something.

The next time you're brushing those pearly whites, you may have some new thoughts pop into your head. Whether you're preparing a killer argument with teeth or contemplating how you should replace that computer that's getting a bit long in the tooth, you can convey a lot with tooth-related phrases that aren't about your teeth at all.

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