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What Does "Long in the Tooth" Mean?

The expression "long in the tooth" refers to old age.
The phrase "long in the tooth" may have originated from the act of looking at a horse's teeth in order to determine its age.
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  • Originally Written By: Darlene Goodman
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: Michelle Arevalo
  • Last Modified Date: 26 June 2014
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The expression “long in the tooth” is an idiom that refers to old people, particularly when their age makes them too experienced or too seasoned for a particular thing, event, or role. When people use this phrase they are generally implying that the subject is past his or her prime. For example, if someone calls an actress too long in the tooth for a role, he or she means that the actress is too old to play the part convincingly.

Origins

An idiom is basically a phrase or statement that has figurative meaning apart from its literal translation. This expression usually has nothing to do with how physically long a person’s teeth are. Rather, the imagery is meant to suggest age. People today often simply know this implication without understanding its origin, but centuries age the connection between teeth and old age likely made more sense to the common person since horses can often be quickly aged by looking their teeth — and when horses were a hot commodity and a common mode of transportation, their aging processes and signs were often much better known.

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Horses’ teeth tend to actually gain length with age, which doesn’t usually happen in people. Additionally, their gum lines often recede into late adulthood. One way to informally measure a horse’s age is to look in its mouth and guess or measure how long its teeth are. The longer the tooth, the older it is likely to be. It was common practice for merchants to examine horse teeth before formalizing a purchase to avoid buying an animal that was too old to do the work of pulling a carriage or plowing a field, and this was a way to quickly check or verify the seller’s representation of how old the animal really was.

English Usage and Adoption

There is evidence of Latin variations of the phrase that date to the 1600s, though the earliest recognized example in English appeared in 1852, in a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray. That novel, The History of Henry Esmond, used the phrase “long in the tooth” to describe a woman who was also described as “of more than middle age, and had nobody's word but her own for the beauty which she said she once possessed.”

It is quite possible that this descriptive saying evolved independently in the English language without any reference to the Latin versions. There is a gap in years between examples of the phrase in common use, so some historians suggest that the Latin phrases went out of vogue before they were picked back up again in England and the English colonies of the time. The English phrase may have come into being on its own in the 1800s because of how common it was then to check a horse’s teeth to determine its age.

Examples and Contexts

The phrase is almost always used for people, particularly others who are seen to be engaging in activities that they may actually be too old for. One could say, for example, “He’s getting a bit long in the tooth to be dressing that way”; it’s also common in sports, theatre, and social engagements. Basically any time a person is acting younger than he or she is the phrase makes sense — it’s like a horse being marketed as being younger and more vibrant than its teeth show.

The connotations aren’t always negative, though. People sometimes use the expression on themselves, often as a way to of owning their age while still showing some degree of savvy; a phrase like “I may be long in the teeth, but I know what’s going on here” is just one example. Though it’s less common, the idiom can also be applied to inanimate things, like appliances or home goods that are past their prime and are no longer functioning properly, particularly if they appear fine at first glance.

Similar Expressions

At least one other English idiom, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, shares the same roots of horse merchants examining animals’ mouths to check for age and overall quality. This expression usually means that people should be grateful for things they receive as gifts without trying too hard to scrutinize their quality. Getting something for free is better than not having it at all, or so the logic goes; examining it to make sure that it is in top condition is often seen as rude or ungrateful.

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Discuss this Article

yumdelish
Post 6

The impression I get from reading this article and comments is that people define 'long in the tooth' as a negative phrase. But in my case it reminds me of my grandfather, who would say this about himself when anyone in the family tried to teach him something new!

CaithnessCC
Post 5

@Sunny27 - I see what you mean but I wouldn't use that phrase to describe women who wear clothes that are too young for them. Isn't it more common to say they look like 'mutton dressed as lamb'?

Perhaps the woman herself could say 'I'm too long in the tooth for this outfit' about herself.

sunshine31
Post 4

@Bhutan - I don’t know. I kind of like watching older leading men. They usually are much better actors because of their experience on the screen. For example, Al Pacino and Jack Nicholson may be a little long in the tooth to play traditional leading men roles, but they are such good actors that most people would believe the role that they played because they are so good at what they do.

But I have noticed that men in Hollywood almost never seem to be long in the tooth while women past 40 always seem to have trouble finding work because many of the roles casted are for women in their twenties. After a while, it is difficult to pass for 25 when you are 40 and will definitely be considered long in the tooth.

It is sad that there are not more roles for older women because there are many gifted actresses out there that I would love to continue to see on screen but unfortunately I rarely do anymore.

Bhutan
Post 3

@Cupcake15 -That makes sense, but when I think about being a bit long in the tooth, I always think of these elderly actors that play leading roles with such young actresses that they could be their grandfather.

There was a Michael Douglas movie that I watching the other day in which he was playing the husband of Gwyneth Paltrow and there was clearly over a forty year age difference.

Although it is not uncommon to see older men with younger women, I think that Michael Douglas was a little long in the tooth to play this role because Gwyneth Paltrow could have been his granddaughter. That was really all that I could think about when I was watching this movie.

I think that the role of his wife should have either gone to an older actress or they should have picked a different leading man.

cupcake15
Post 2

@Sunny27 - I agree with what you are saying and these women are a getting a little long in the tooth to be trying to look like teenagers. I think that it has to do with the fact that some women to do not want to accept that they are getting older. They feel that they have a nice figure and want to show off a little.

I understand why they do it because if I had a dynamite body I probably would be tempted too, but I think that a little modesty does go a long way especially as you get older.

Sunny27
Post 1

I think that there are a lot of women that are little long in the tooth to be wearing certain clothing. Many of these women are middle aged, but wear clothing that a teenager would wear.

It really makes the older woman look even older not younger. I think that when you get to a certain age you can still dress sexy, but should do so in a sophisticated way. I really think that micro minis are out. It really makes the women appear a bit long in the tooth.

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