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Re: The language expert question

Posted by R. Berg on January 23, 2001

In Reply to: Re: The horse gum question posted by ESC on January 22, 2001

: : : : : : : : : : What does "long in the tooth" mean. I alwasy thought it meant ugly.

: : : : : : : : : "Long in the tooth" means old. It refers to the fact that one can determine a horse's age by looking at its teeth. A horse's gums recede as it ages causing its teeth to look "long."

: : : : : : : : And it is from this same fact that we get "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth." Two phrases explained for the price of one!

: : : : : : : My understanding is that horses continue to experience eruption of new teeth until they are up to 20 years old (in some breeds) and that the number and length of their teeth (which continue to grow throughout the horses life) is therefore a determinate of their age. Retreating gums are more a feature of human aging.

: : : : : : I live in horse country but don't know a lot about horses. My child, however, is taking a horsemanship class in school. She tells me that horses have baby teeth and adult teeth like humans. But don't grow new sets throughout their lives.

: : : : : My old Britannica says a horse's molars grow up from the jaw as they are worn down from the top, for the first six years or so of the horse's life, and then they stop growing. Anyway, it is possible to estimate a horse's age from its teeth (perhaps they become shorter? discolored? missing?), producing the "gift horse" proverb. Maybe "long in the tooth" refers more to humans. Anybody out there have the answer from the horse's mouth?

: : : :
: : : : I found this site using the google search engine http://www.horsematters.net/health/teeth.htm - I'm sure there are others.

: : : LONG IN THE TOOTH - "Old; aging. Here is the first cousin of 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth.' As a horse gets older, its gums retract, making the teeth look longer. The longer the teeth, the older the horse. Applied to people, the saying is fairly recent, an early example being in J.C. Snaith's 'Love Lane' : 'One of the youngest R.A.s (rear admirals) on record, but a bit long in the tooth for the army.'" From "The Dictionary of Cliches" by James Rogers (Ballantine Books, New York, 1985). A second source also says the phrase means "aging" and ".originally was applied to horses because their gums recede with age. It has long been applied to humans, both male and female. Thackery used the expression way back in 1852, so it is well established in British English." From "Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins" by William and Mary Morris (HarperCollins, New York, 1977, 1988). And a third: "That horses' gums recede and their teeth appear longer as they grown older, owing to their constant grinding of their food, is the idea behind this ancient folk phrase, which means one is getting on in years." From "Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins" by Robert Hendrickson (Facts on File, New York, 1997).

: : I think you will find, irrespective of protestations to the contrary from Mr Hendrickson, that receding gums are not a prime cause of long teeth in horses. I have that from the 'horses mouth' - consult a Veterinary surgeon.

: It looks like you may be right. But my question is, how could so many language experts be so wrong? Here's some horsy information from a coworker: "A horse's gums may recede slightly, but not that much. Horses' teeth grow their entire life since they are worn down, to some extent by their chewing action, however, they grow more rapidly than they wear down. A horse's age can be fairly well determined by examining their teeth due to the fact that the teeth have distinctive and well documented characteristics at various ages. I was a Veterinary Technology student in college and have read many articles and studied numerous charts on this so I feel what I am telling you is very accurate!"

Could be the language experts were wrong because they all thought the Oxford English Dictionary was infallible. "Long in the tooth" appears in the Supplement at the end of the OED Compact Edition and is defined this way: "(orig. of horses) displaying the roots of the teeth owing to the recession of the gums with increasing age; hence [generally] old." One of the examples given is the Snaith quotation used by Rogers. Since it's well known that horses show their age somehow in the condition of their teeth, I can easily imagine that people who weren't horse experts assumed that horses do it the same way we do-by the length of the teeth. I suspect the later writers simply followed the OED instead of doing their own homework.