Gritting and cutting your teeth (Idioms and phrases with ‘teeth’)

close-up of a woman's smiling mouth, showing her teeth
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by Kate Woodford

It might surprise you to learn that the noun ‘teeth’ features in a number of current English idioms. This post is a round-up of the most frequent and useful.

Starting with the phrase in the title, if you grit your teeth, you accept that you have to do something difficult or unpleasant and start doing it in a determined way: I’m not crazy about some aspects of the job but I grit my teeth and get on with them.

Three ‘teeth’ idioms relate to work in different ways. A piece of work that you can get your teeth into is one that requires you to work hard and use your skill and energy, in a way that is satisfying. If you get the bit between your teeth, you start to do a task energetically and with determination. (The ‘bit’ in this idiom is the piece of metal put in a horse’s mouth.) Finally for work, if you cut your teeth on a particular job or activity, that is where you get your first experience of it:

I’ve only had bits and pieces of work recently – nothing that I can get my teeth into.

There’s no stopping Lily once she’s got the bit between her teeth.

Having cut his journalistic teeth on local newspapers, he moved on to a national paper.

Other ‘teeth’ idioms relate to a variety of subjects. For example, in informal, UK English, if you are fed up to the back teeth with a bad situation, you are extremely annoyed or bored because it has continued for too long: He never does any housework – he leaves it all for me to do. I’m fed up to the back teeth with it.

If you do something by the skin of your teeth, you manage to do it, but only just: She actually passed the exam, but only by the skin of her teeth!

The informal phrase lie through your teeth is used to emphasize that someone is lying (=saying something that they know is not true): I said his cake was delicious, lying through my teeth. / If I said it was a good talk, I’d be lying through my teeth.

If you say you would give your eye teeth for something or to do something, you mean you would very much like to have or do it: Most actors would give their eye teeth to work with her. / I’d give my eye teeth for a job like that.

The informal and rather violent phrase a kick in the teeth is used for bad and unfair treatment, especially of someone who is already in a difficult situation: The closure of the factory was a real kick in the teeth for an area that is already suffering.

Finally, if something, especially a sound, sets your teeth on edge, it annoys you and you find it unpleasant: It was his patronizing tone that set my teeth on edge.

That concludes my round-up of ‘teeth’ idioms. I hope you found it useful.

10 thoughts on “Gritting and cutting your teeth (Idioms and phrases with ‘teeth’)

  1. Paulo Bergamasco

    Wow Kate, I found it extremely informative. I didn’t know any of them. Thanks a million for sharing it.

  2. Francisco

    Great, very interesting to know about this “idioms”. In my mother language (portuguese) there are similar “idioms” including the word “teeth” (dentes in Portuguese) for situations with similar meanings.

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