Daily Archives: December 15, 2011


Words are wonderful things. They can be quite delectable, giving you something to sink your teeth into or at least to roll around on your tongue; they can be bright, shiny toys, too. And sometimes that’s a problem. One has to be careful exactly where and how one uses spicy or shiny new words – you don’t toss a whole jar of a new spice into your stew (imagine doing that with cloves, for instance – gaaah), and you certainly don’t toss in a shiny new toy; you’d break a tooth.

A couple of aggravating factors in this issue are the frequent desire not simply to have fun but to sound impressive, and the fact that uncommon words tend not to have accretions of strong positive or negative values, so they look like good alternatives to some more common words.

So, when there is a particularly delicious and erudite-sounding word, even if it is really quite unfamiliar and frankly a bit ridiculous in context, it may be prone to appearing unexpectedly in place of something rather better known, especially under the digits of lexically edacious pseudo-didacts. An example is the little Canadian Press factoid box that showed up in newspapers on November 6: “QuickFacts about edentulous Canadians.”

What does edentulous mean? The article doesn’t tell you directly. The first sentence repeats it: “Many Canadians are edentulous but cannot afford workable false teeth.” The rest of the article is light statistics about Canadians with no natural teeth, plus some general toothcare-related factoids. So… you can figure readily that the dent refers to teeth, as it tends to. You may also reckon that the ul is the Latin diminutive, which shows up in assorted words such as capsule and macular. That leaves the e, and you may recall that e pluribus unum means “out of many, one”; it happens that edentulous is an adjective (as shown by the ous ending) that means “out of teeth” – because the teeth have gone out of you!

Of course, you could prefer to see Eden and some echo of Dracula, but Eden is where Eve met a snake and bit an apple, and snakes have fangs and it’s hard to bite an apple without teeth, and Dracula is surely not edentulous either. On the other hand, if it sounds more like eventual, that may be appropriate, depending on your standard of tooth care, especially if it’s rather sedentary.

The Oxford English Dictionary presents some nice quotes using this word. From a 1782 Essay on comparative anatomy by Alexander Monro, “The chin and nose of edentulous people are much nearer.” And in 1784 the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London noted that “Fishes… [are] apparently utter strangers to edentulous old age.”

Edentulous? Toothless, for heaven’s sake. But, now, is it apposite or ironic that edentulous is said without any direct involvement of the teeth – all done with the tip of the tongue on the alveolar ridge? And that, on the other hand, toothless requires the tongue to touch the teeth, as though checking to make sure they’re still there?

Thanks to Amy Toffelmire for directing my attention to this one.