In this morning’s paper, I read the following in a guest column written by a recent college graduate:
I [won’t] deny knowing people who skipped college and ended up with the sorts of careers most grads would cut their eyeteeth for.
The writer’s meaning was that “most grads” would envy the “sorts of careers” attained by some of the people “who skipped college.”
This young writer has mixed up his “eyeteeth” expressions. The idiom he was reaching for is “to give one’s eye teeth for.”
First, a definition of eyetooth: “a canine tooth, especially, of the upper jaw.”
According to a note in the OED, eyeteeth probably derive their name from “the fact that the roots of the upper canines extend close to the floor of the eye socket.”
Because the eyeteeth are the latest to emerge in the human child–the first set at about 16 months and the second set at about the age of 12 years–they have become a symbol of maturity and wisdom. I suspect that their usefulness in tearing meat makes them something to be valued as well.
To say that a person is willing to “give his eyeteeth” in exchange for some benefit is to indicate the intensity of the person’s desire for that benefit:
To get 25 percent of the market and knock off Ford? I’d give my eyeteeth. –Iacocca, Google eBook, 2011.
I’d give my eyeteeth to see more of their work onstage. –Marya Hornbacher, Minnesota Playlist
There is an expression “to cut one’s eyeteeth.” Literally, it means to have your eyeteeth come in. Figuratively, it means to pass from babyhood to youth. It can also mean, “to acquire initial practice or experience in a particular sphere of activity.” For example:
The new White House social secretary is Bess Clements Abell, a graduate in political science from the University of Kentucky, who cut eyeteeth on big-league politics as the daughter of a former governor and senator.
[I] cut my eyeteeth in many a cover band and managed to continue drumming through good days and bad. –Steve Scarpelli, The Sun Kings
More frequently, the idea of gaining experience prior to becoming a master at one’s craft is expressed as “to cut one’s teeth”:
It has been 30 years since Edi Truell cut his teeth as a trainee with a Wall Street bank.
Rookie prosecutors cut teeth on DUI, misdemeanor cases…
Students cut their teeth during rural clinical placement.
to give one’s eyeteeth for: to exchange something precious for something even more precious
to cut one’s eyeteeth: to gain experience
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