background image 165

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.

Bottom line:
to give one’s eyeteeth for: to exchange something precious for something even more precious
to cut one’s eyeteeth: to gain experience

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

6 thoughts on “Eyeteeth”

  1. There might be some confusion about “eyeteeth”:
    1. The human canine teeth are bicuspids. These are the ones with their roots close to the eye sockets.
    2. The permanent teeth that children get at the age of about 12 are molars – four of them. These teeth are flat on the top, not pointed like canine teeth.

    I come from a family with one younger sister and lots of younger cousins and one daughter whom I took to the dentist many times. Braces myself, too, so I ran into a lot about teeth.

  2. Children also receive an earlier set of four permanent molars that emerge at the age of about six years. Hence, four six-year molars, then four 12-year molars, and then four wisdom teeth (molars) about the ages of 16 to 18.
    None of these are canine teeth.

  3. Ah, yes, the chimera sayings:
    A penny saved saves nine
    We’ll burn your bridges when we come to it
    If the show must go on, it will go wrong
    It’s no skin off my brow
    Don’t make promises before they hatch
    Never look a bird in the hand in the mouth…

  4. A stitch in time saves nine.
    Isaac Asimov wrote an entire short story (SF) just so he could end it with:
    “A nitch in time saves Strine.”

    It is hilarious!

  5. I have never heard “cut one’s eyeteeth” on something, meaning to gain experience or otherwise. I’ve always heard that as simply to “cut one’s teeth” (as you note). If I saw or heard the former, I would assume it was a confused mixing of the 2 expressions.

Leave a Comment