milk teeth and baby teeth

Mark Liberman at Language Log has saved you from the rant that this weekend's post was to be. Oh, thank you, Mark! His post from earlier today does what needed to be done about journalist Matthew Engel's BBC piece "Why do some Americanisms irritate people?" (Yes, people.) The Language Log post starts by pointing out that only one of the first five 'Americanisms' cited by Engel is, in fact, American in origin. The only fault I can find with Liberman's piece is that it is not entitled "Why do BBC language features annoy linguists?"*

So, instead of a turgid rant about the BBC's continued knack for employing non-experts** to spout nonsense about language, I give you:

babies!!    kittens!!!   dental maiming!!!!

Today's topic was suggested by American-in-Scotland @dialect and inspired by her (first?) visit to a UK dentist. And, actually, it's rather a simple one. But just to make it more complicated, let me throw in a technical term I've just learn{ed/t}: deciduous teeth. Americans tend to call them baby teeth, and the more common term for them in BrE is milk teethFor those who like numbers, the Corpus of Contemporary American English has 100 baby tooth/baby teeth and 18 milk tooth/milk teeth.  The British National Corpus (which is much smaller) has 15 milk tooth/teeth and 3 baby teeth (two of which should actually be Babyteeth the name of an album by Therapy?) and no baby tooth. When I was a child in the US, I only knew milk teeth as a term for kittens' first teeth.

A milk/baby tooth isn't forever, of course, and before it goes it is a loose tooth, but in BrE one also hears wobbly tooth a lot. As far as my Grover is concerned, this is the only term for a loose tooth, since she was first exposed to the concept through the Charlie and Lola episode "I do not ever, never want my wobbly tooth to fall out".  Checking the corpora for loose/wobbly/wiggly tooth, we get 25/1/1 in COCA (AmE) and 3/1/0 in BNC (BrE).

The tooth fairy tradition is alive and well in both the UK and the US. Reading about how much money the tooth fairy tends to leave these days has left me depressed and fearful for a completely spoil(ed/t) generation.

And as a final public service before I go: Parents, if your (orig. AmE) teenager's dentist ever suggests removing a baby/milk tooth in order to "encourage" the permanent tooth to come forward, say "NO", or else your child may spend most of her most awkward years awkwardly trying to hide the big gap where a bicuspid should be. She will have no chance of being invited to (orig. AmE) the prom and you will endanger her respect for medical/dental/parental authority for evermore.

* Very occasionally, the Beeb does allow experts on (rather than just famous users of) language to grace its broadcasts.  For example, I was once on a program(me) about Scrabble. It was good fun, and I thought it great that they involved a Scrabble-playing linguist in the production.  But the best part? They spelled my name wrong.

** At one level, we're all experts on the language(s) we speak--in the sense that we use the language expertly. (This is for the most part subconscious knowledge--and science is only a very small way toward(s) understanding that knowledge.) There are a lot of accomplished users of language out there, and that's who the BBC likes to ask for opinions (God help us, not facts!) about language. I would like to point out that I am an accomplished user of time and space (taking up more of it every year!). Therefore, I would like to be considered for a central role in the BBC's next program(me) on physics.


  1. I still hate the dentist who when I was a student (before x-rays) whipped out three baby teeth saying that grown- up teeth would come through. They never did and I still have the gaps...

  2. Out of interest, what is the tooth fairy's going rate these days? In my day it was 6d (2.5p), probably because it was the smallest silver coin in circulation. Considering that this was the price of two Mars bars I suppose it's 50p or even £1 now...

  3. My daughter gets a $1 US coin. She's 7. Earlier on, we gave her stuff such as pencils and crayons, but the public school network got us off that.

  4. Well my first tooth gardnered a (double the going average) respectable £2, aaaall the way back in 1994, and the subsequent front teeth £1 each. Canines[AmE- eyeteeth?] and premolars were not deemed acceptable.

    I expect children today take direct transfers or Amazon vouchers in lieu of any coinage of large enough value.

    P.S. Arwel- a Mars bar costs 65p.

  5. My first though, when I saw the title of your post, was "Surely Grover isn't old enough to be losing her milk teeth yet?"!

    I, as a child, got 6d (2.5 p) per tooth, as was the custom then; my daughter got 20p. I don't know what the going rate is today, but I'm sure my grandson will find out when he reaches that stage. Right now, though, he only has 6 milk teeth, so that's still some years away!

    My family always put the tooth on a saucer under an upturned glass, so the tooth fairy was less likely to disturb the child when making the transaction. One of my friends, though, didn't have a tooth fairy at all, but Mr Mouse left a chocolate under his pillow in recompense for the tooth, which I thought (although luckily was too tactful to say) was very unfair!

  6. Because of the weight of American media, the English get more American words, phrases, et al; but we get plenty from England, too, not just from public television and NPR. Lately, I've noted "sacked" for "fired" a lot - without going into it, the list is really quite a long one. But yes, that BBC story was absolute nonsense.

  7. When my brothers and I lost our (AmE) baby teeth, we got $1 per tooth. This was in the late '90s.

    And about that BBC article...What's with the whole "Americanisms irritate people" thing? What, exactly, does Engle think Americans are? Daleks? Something less than human? I'm sorry, that's the most irritating part of that article.

  8. Lynne, Mia

    Would you have felt even a flicker annyance if Matthew Englel had written "Why do some Americanisms irritate folk?"

  9. Of course I can't lay my hands on any of the examples I've seen down the years, but I think American media are just as guilty of saying 'people', when they mean 'Americans' as British media are of using 'people' to mean 'Brits'. I suspect most print media still haven't got used to the fact that they are consumed internationally these days.

    As for milk/baby teeth, although I (British, in my 50s) understand 'milk teeth', I think I normally use 'baby teeth'. As others have said, the going rate was 6d when I was that age. I don't know the current rate, though I do have a nephew who's the right age. Must ask my brother some time.

  10. This comment has been removed by the author.

  11. Tom Stoppard nailed this use of 'people' in Night & Day. Two hacks are talking about the Vietnam War:

    GUTHRIE: Do you know how many people were killed in that war?
    WAGNER: Not exactly.
    GUTHRIE: Fifty-four.
    WAGNER: Oh. People.
    GUTHRIE: And eighteen missing.

  12. Having just been to the dentist here in California with my two children. The literature given to me about their teeth uses the term "milk teeth" but the dentist used the term "baby teeth" when speaking about them.

  13. They were always baby teeth for me (Am). Animals had milk teeth. And they were loose, not wobbly. Maybe wiggly.
    And what of wisdom teeth? Any differences there?
    My son never put his teach under his pillow for the tooth fairy. He decided to bank them, and collect at some later point. Am a bit nervous about what the final bill will be when he decides to do that, what with compounding interest. He's twenty now.

  14. Wiggly is the word of choice around here too (California).

  15. In 1950s England I had loose teeth, and when they came out I got 6d from "the fairies". I didn't hear of a specialist "tooth fairy" until much later. Perhaps that came from having a middle-aged mum who repeated what she had heard forty-odd years earlier?

    Kate (Derby, UK)

  16. While I appreciate your comment [Reading about how much money the tooth fairy tends to leave these days has left me depressed and fearful for a completely spoil(ed/t) generation.] I think the advent of cell phones, iPods and designer clothes in elementary school point to it being a bit late for that! Entertaining blog, thank you. This is my first comment.

  17. An interesting thing about knowing two languages is the "wait, this expression exists in language X too?" moment. For me, language X is usually Russian because I only actively spoke Russian outside the home as a child and therefore never learned the more adult (in a non-sexual way) expressions, but "milk teeth" just gave me one of those in reverse. "Milk teeth" is a verbatim translation of what Russians call them. Yet, I've never heard it used in the US.

  18. khunbaobao-

    £1 really isn't much, you can't even buy a chocolate bar and a can of drink for that, much less a toy or a bag of crack.

  19. I always thought of "milk teeth" as the more technical term, but the everyday term has always been "baby teeth." For both humans and animals, unless I'm in conversation with a dentist or vet.

  20. Apparently it's milk teeth in Spanish too, at least in El Salvador. Some students taught me that term last year...dientes de leche. I thought it was quite funny. I'd only ever heard baby teeth before that. I had no idea that's what they say in England.

  21. Continuing with Boris' and Rachael's comments, I can confirm that also in Uruguay (by the way, we have just won the soccer/football Copa America championship for the 15th time!) it is "dientes de leche",(milk teeth) and applied mostly to people (as in "humans").

    On another note, it is interesting to see the various shifts in meaning experienced by the innocent term "people", from the merely descriptive, to the excluding-other-communities-one (as in "Americans" or "Brits"), to the somewhat-offensive (as in "you people")...


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)