On Monday, I experienced the indescribable joy of having a wisdom tooth extracted from my upper jaw. It was a pretty straightforward procedure — the tooth was neither impacted nor infected, just falling apart and causing me pain — and my dentist and his assistant made the whole process quick, smooth, and about as enjoyable as having a piece of your body ripped from an orifice can possibly be.
The occasion gave me the opportunity to make too many dad jokes about the extraction of a “wizdum toof” lowering my intellect, but each joke left me wondering just a little more: Why are they called wisdom teeth?
For that matter, why are any of our teeth called what they’re called? I had to find out.
So I did. Here they are, from back to front:
Our third set of molars make their appearance in our gum line as we’re making the transition from adolescence to adulthood — usually between the ages of 17 and 25. It’s believed their lateness is why we called them wisdom teeth: They appear when we are older and wiser.
Sometimes, though, the wisdom teeth don’t come out fully or at all. These are the dreaded impacted wisdom teeth, possibly the only phrase that no one will object to seeing the word impacted in.
The name wisdom teeth is an old one: There is evidence that these teeth were known as dentes sapientiae (“teeth of wisdom”) since the time of Hippocrates.
The name of our other two pairs of molars comes from the Latin mola “millstone.” Like a millstone, which grinds down grains, our molars grind down the food we eat and mix it with saliva so it’ll slide easily down our gullet.
Bicuspids or Premolars
These two sets of teeth get two names because they partially do two jobs. They serve as a transition between the biting and tearing of the cuspids and the grinding and chewing of the molars.
The word premolar is straightforward: These teeth sit right in front of the molars, therefore pre- “before” + molar. Bicuspid finds it root in the Latin cuspis “point.” The pointed end of a tooth is called a cusp, and because your premolars each have two cusps, they’re called bicuspids.
Go check them out in a mirror; we’ll be here when you get back.
Cuspids or Canines
If our bicuspids have two cusps, then it makes etymological sense that our single set of four cuspids each have only one cusp.
These are also called canines because they can get pretty pointy and resemble the scariest teeth on angry dogs, wolves, and other canines — especially if you’re a vampire.
Our two upper canines are also called our eyeteeth, not because of any great mystical or mythological story about observant chompers, but simply because they grow more or less right below our eyes.
Etymologically related to the words incision and scissors, the name for our four front teeth comes from the Latin in- + caedere “to cut.” The raison d’etre of our incisors is to cut our food into smaller pieces that can then be ground down by our premolars and molars.
If your top incisors are overly large compared to the rest of your teeth, you are said to have buckteeth (which is a closed compound according to Merriam-Webster, though not every dictionary agrees). I was unable to find a definitive reason why English landed on buckteeth rather than, say, ratteeth or rabbitteeth, which both seem rather obvious. It might derive from the buck sense of “to kick up,” as a bucking foal.
The French have a different frame of reference. They call buckteeth dents à l’anglaise — literally “English teeth.”
Image by D Sharon Pruitt.