Toothy and Toothsome

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A reader remarks on the use of toothsome in this headline at Discovery-dot-com:

Crocodiles are fun-loving, finds a new study on the toothsome predators.

Unless the writer thinks of crocodiles chiefly as the source of a tasty meal, a more appropriate word is toothy.

Here are the usual definitions of toothsome and toothy:

toothsome adjective: pleasant to the taste; palatable. Figuratively, “sexually attractive.”

Examples of correct use of toothsome:

A toothsome rich cheesecake awaits a lick of flame and a douse of brandy strawberries. —Clementine Nicholson.

If you’re writing an article on how Julia Roberts’s starring role as Erin Brockovich transformed her image from toothsome movie star to serious actress, you don’t want to have to wade through the hundreds of fan pages you’d find by just typing in “Julia Roberts.” —Writers’ Digest Books.

toothy adjective: having numerous, large, or prominent teeth.

Example of correct use of toothy:

Even those who know nothing about [Teddy Roosevelt’s] presidency instantly recognize his image carved on Mount Rushmore–his huge, toothy smile [sic] and his wire-rimmed glasses—Digital History site, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Note: The glasses are evident on the Rushmore image, but Borglum did not sculpt TR’s trademark toothy smile.

Toothsome is not offered as a synonym for toothy in either the OED or M-W, but the Web abounds in examples of this mix-up, on both sides of the Atlantic:

All hail our bespectacled and toothsome new footie messiah-Liverpool Football Club football manager—New Statesman (UK) (Photos show the person referred to (Jürgen Klopp, manager, Liverpool Football Club) smiling with Teddy Roosevelt brilliance.)

But they [relationship problems] seemed to be imperceptible as she flashed a toothsome smile to onlookers.—Daily Mail (UK).

Here is Teddy (since he has such a dazzling white smile, from here on out, he’ll be known as Toothsome Teddy).—Review of television show on a US entertainment site called Newnownext.

I grinned at her and was rewarded with a toothsome smile before she hurried to the pickup and began pulling the broken crates out of the bed.—Sylvia Nobel, American novelist.

Authors and reviewers of children’s books that feature crocodiles are especially prone to use toothsome to suggest a mouthful of teeth:

Galdone, Paul. The Monkey and the Crocodile. That toothsome crocodile and wily monkey almost leap across the page as they try to outsmart one another.

Sierra, Judy. Mind Your Manners, B.B. Wolf. His best friend, a toothsome crocodile, warns him that he will have to mind his manners. 

Bruenig, Mikkela. In a while, Crocodile. So he and Dennis take a trip into The Great Big Book of Everything to find out about the toothsome crocodile!

In each of these examples, the word should be toothy.

Both toothsome and toothy date from the sixteenth century, but toothsome has not held up as well as toothy. The Ngram Viewer shows toothsome reaching its peak in 1900 and descending in a straight line since then. Toothy, on the other hand, doesn’t make much of a showing on the Viewer until 1960, when it shows a marked rise.

M-W offers toothsome as a third meaning for toothy and gives this example: “the toothy morsel within—Manufacturing Confectioner.”

Paper and cigars can be toothy. “Toothy paper” has a rough finish. A “toothy cigar” has bumps on the wrapper.

In time, standard usage may come to accept “full of teeth” as an acceptable definition of toothsome. For the present, careful writers will reserve toothsome to mean tasty, palatable, or attractive and use toothy to describe crocodiles and smiles.

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1 thought on “Toothy and Toothsome”

  1. I believe it is worth maintaining the distinction between them because both words are necessary and obviously quite different in meaning. But I guess for people who like exotic foods, crocodiles might be toothsome as well as toothy.

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