teeth


teeth
   Any departure from the normal pattern in the way a baby cuts its first tooth could be significant. Teeth usually show through the lower gums first; 'If a child tooths first in the upper jaw, it is considered ominous of its dying in its infancy' (Brand, 1849: ii. 87). The belief was still remembered in Halifax in 1957, when a man told Iona Opie: 'They used to say that a child who cut the first tooth upward was almost sure to live; if the first tooth was cut downward it was not so sure to live.' To cut teeth unusually early was also thought meaningful, but there were two interpretations. One, recorded in 1659 in the proverb 'Soon todd [toothed], soon with God', was that the baby would soon be dead; the other, expressed in a later proverb 'Soon teeth, soon toes', was that the mother would quickly be pregnant again.
   If any teeth were already showing at the child's birth, this was taken to mean that he or she would grow up vicious. Richard III was supposed to have been born thus, according to Shakespeare (3 Henry the Sixth, v. vi). In the 1950s, Christina Hole wrote:
   To be born with teeth is an extremely bad sign. The usual theory is that it foretells death by violence, but one midwife informed me a few years ago that the true meaning is even worse. 'I never speak of it,' she said, 'and if anyone asks me I deny it, for the sake of the mother; but it means the child will grow up to be a murderer.' It is possible that this is the older form of the superstition. A milder version gives it as a sign of a very bad temper; and in some districts it has been watered down to a vague prophecy of simple bad luck [Folklore 68 (1957), 413]. By 1987, a correspondent writing to the Daily Mirror [28 August 1987, p. 20] reports being puzzled by two contrasting beliefs - one, that such a child will be extremely clever, the other that he or she is born to be hanged.
   If a child was having difficulty cutting its first teeth, a little bag containing animal's teeth or adult human teeth might be hung round its neck as a *charm. In London around 1905 calf's teeth were sold in street markets for this purpose, but it was far more common for girls and young women to keep any of their own teeth which had been extracted, to help their babies later (Lovett, 1925: 25-6). In Herefordshire at about the same period, the bag held woodlice, or a few hairs from the cross on a *donkey's back (Leather, 1912: 70, 81); in Shropshire, a necklace of *rowan twigs was worn (Burne, 1883: 195).
   When a milk tooth fell out, it was important to dispose of it correctly. One method, known to Aubrey (1686/1880: 11) and still widely used up to the mid-20th century, was to throw it in the fire at once, often after rubbing salt on it, and sometimes saying a charm:
   Fire, fire, burn a bone,
   God send me another tooth again;
   A straight one,
   A white one, And in the same place.
   or:
   Black tooth, blue tooth,
   Please God send me a new tooth -
   which, as a correspondent from Sheffield noted in the Guardian (letters page, 20 Oct. 1988), 'never failed to work'. One traditional explanation was that if the tooth was simply discarded with other rubbish, a dog or pig might gnaw it, in which case the child's new tooth would be misshapen, like the animal's. Throughout the 20th century, an alternative way of treating a milk tooth has become ever more popular: to hide it overnight under the child's pillow, so that fairies, or the *Tooth Fairy, will take it away and leave a coin instead. This playful gift-giving is pleasanter for all concerned.
   An idea current to the end of the 19th century, but now obsolete, was that fallen or extracted teeth (whether of child or adult) must either be immediately burned, or eventually buried with their owner, ready for *Doomsday; otherwise, one would have to hunt for them in a bucket of blood in Hell. In Derbyshire, people stored their teeth in jars, to be placed in their coffins eventually, since 'when you go to heaven you will have to account for all the teeth you have had upon earth' (Addy, 1895: 125). Occasionally, malevolent magic was feared; at Westleigh (Devon) in the 19th century, women kept all their extracted teeth carefully hidden 'to prevent enemies or dogs getting hold of them' (Elworthy, 1895: 437).
   ■ Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 336-9; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 393-5.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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