Q: The other day I heard “toothsome” used to describe an attractive woman. What is the origin of this usage? Is there some connection to calling someone “a real dish”?
A: “Toothsome” has meant tasty—in the literal sense of good to eat—since the 16th century.
But it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that the sexier sense of “toothsome” (think of a luscious or delicious morsel) was applied to attractive people.
Here’s how all these meanings evolved.
To begin with, the words “tooth” and “teeth” are extremely old, as you might expect. They were recorded in Old English writing as far back as the early 700s, as tóþ and téþ (the runic letter þ represented a “th” sound).
“Tooth” came into English through the Germanic languages, but it can be traced to prehistoric Proto-Germanic and even further back to ancient Indo-European. It’s notable that the word for “tooth” in Indo-European, reconstructed as dont, is derived from a base (ed-) that meant to eat.
Since teeth and eating are so closely connected—etymologically as well as in everyday life—it’s not surprising that “tooth” has long had figurative meanings related to the sense of taste.
From the Middle Ages until well into the 19th century, for example, the expression “to (or for) one’s tooth” meant to one’s taste or liking, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The earliest known figurative use in writing is from Chaucer, where it’s found in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue (circa 1386): “I wol kepe it for youre owene tooth.” (Here the raunchy Wife of Bath is speaking not of food but of her body.)
These 17th-century examples also illustrate the use of “tooth” to mean one’s liking:
“A wanton tooth is the harbinger to luxurious wantonnesse.” (From Bishop Joseph Hall’s Contemplations, 1615.)
“And keep the best o’ th’ meat (forsooth) / For your own Worships dainty tooth!” (From Charles Cotton’s Burlesque Upon Burlesque, 1675.)
The OED’s sole 19th-century example is from an English magazine, Beck’s Florist, Fruitist and Garden Miscellany (September 1851): “What a tooth for fruit has a monkey!”
“Palate,” another word for a part of the mouth, has also been used figuratively to mean taste or liking. And the adjective forms, “palatable” and “toothsome,” both originally meant tasty.
The tasty sense of “toothsome” was first recorded in the 16th century, and the OED’s definition (“pleasant to the taste, savoury, palatable”) is still current today.
Oxford’s earliest example is from an account of a slave-trading expedition: “We … found water, which although it were neither so toothsome as running water … yet did we not refuse it.” (From John Sparke’s Sir John Hawkins’ 2nd Voyage, circa 1565.)
And here are examples from each of the next three centuries:
“The Patattoes, which they eate as a delicate and toothsome meate.” (From Edward Grimeston’s 1604 translation of José de Acosta’s The Naturall and Morall Historie of the East and West Indies.)
“I began to find a Craving … for more solid and Toothsome Food.” (From the physician George Cheyne’s The English Malady, 1733, a book about nervous diseases.)
“Hard to please if they cannot select something toothsome from the menu.” (From Edward Callow’s Old London Taverns, 1899.)
At the same time, from about the mid-1500s, “toothsome” was also used figuratively to mean pleasant in general, a usage that is less common today but is still found.
Oxford’s earliest citation is from 1551: “Speaking thinges nothing tothsome.” (Thomas Wilson’s The Rule of Reason.)
The OED’s most recent example is from 1805: “Elegant and toothsome sermons were most in request.” (John Ramsay’s Scotland and Scotsmen in the 18th Century.)
As for the “toothsome” that means sexually alluring, it apparently came into use in the early 20th century. The usage was probably inevitable, since similar taste-related words, like “luscious,” “delicious,” “scrumptious,” “delectable,” and even “yummy,” are also used in a semi-humorous way to describe sexually attractive people.
The OED has no citations for this sense of “toothsome,” but in our own searches we’ve found examples dating from 1930. Here’s the earliest:
“Another [advertisement] shows a very toothsome miss revealing her shapely limbs far above the knees. I have just discovered that, in the small type occupying one-fourth of the copy, she is supposed to advertise a certain brand of cathartic.” (From a brief item published in the “News of the Week” column of the Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, January 1930.)
We’ve also found examples from the 1940s onward.
A catalog of 1944 copyrights for advertising slogans included these, intended to promote tooth powder and other dental products: “Tall, Dark and Toothsome” … “Toothsome Joe” … “Dates Galore for Toothsome Lenore” … “Most Toothsome Ensign at Headquarters” … “Word for the Sergeant Is Toothsome.” (No doubt the models in the illustrations were displaying toothy grins, and the use of “toothsome” for alluring was a pun.)
The adjective appears in Anya Seaton’s novel Foxfire (1950), in a conversation between lovers: “‘You look toothsome as always,’ said Tim, examining her, ‘but a trifle blurred, my darling. I prefer the ultra-golden locks and that’s the wrong shade of lipstick, should be darker.’ ”
And a review of Stanley Kubric’s film Fear and Desire, published in Variety in January 1953, refers to the actress Virginia Leith as “a toothsome dish.”
There are also plenty of examples from academic and literary journals. Examples are so numerous that we’ll give just one per decade:
“We think Webster clever when the Duchess of Malfi reveals that she is pregnant by asking for an apricot, and we are as baffled as Troilus when toothsome, wenchy Cressid is in the arms of Diomede in the Greek camp.” (From “A Literary Correspondence,” by Edward Dahlberg and Herbert Read, the Sewanee Review, summer 1959.)
“The same drama may take place aboard a steamer: a traveler (the Normal Lecherous Male) in a deck chair shakes a dozing neighbor to make sure he doesn’t miss a toothsome blonde in toreador pants.” (From an article, “The Last Gospel: Cartoons and Christianity,” by Bill Casey, Southwest Review, winter 1963.)
“This presentation must be more responsible than commercial weather news need be, where toothsome girls and half-inebriated aging boys cavort before maps and satellite photos.” (From “U.S. Government Documents: A Mazeway Miscellany,” by Joe Morehead, published in the journal RQ, summer 1974.)
“Kimball reminds himself sternly that this wonderful creature before him, this toothsome woman, is merely somebody’s daughter.” (From “Real Time,” a story by Al Gowan, Ploughshares, 1981.)
“At the same time, a strong bias towards the colloquial language is felt throughout, with many phrases of the type … ‘a toothsome (sexually attractive) blonde’ – sdobnaja (colloquial) blondinka.” (From a review of an English-Russian phrasebook in the Slavonic and East European Review, January 1997.)
“Suppose the late Ian Fleming had got End-Times religion and built on it a portentous Scripture-based epic in 007 style, only with a certain paucity of toothsome women.” (From “Millennial Sideshow,” an essay by J. C. Furnas, American Scholar, winter 2000.)
“Certainly ‘The Libertine’ is as lavish—with its sumptuous illustrations of luscious Rococo nudes and other toothsome lovelies—as an 18th-century bal masqué.” (From a review by Caroline Weber of The Libertine, a collection of 18th-century French erotica edited by Michel Delon, New York Times Book Review, Dec. 8, 2013.)
As you can see, this use of “toothsome” is alive and well. But sometimes the adjective is misused in place of “toothy” to describe someone with a big smile.
As William Safire wrote in the New York Times Magazine in 1982, “Toothsome does not mean ‘toothy,’ any more than fulsome means ‘full,’ or noisome means ‘noisy.’ Fight cavities; stop the decay of a good word.”
More than 30 years later, Safire is still right. No standard dictionary recognizes the use of “toothsome” to describe someone with a generous mouthful of teeth.
By the way, while a “toothsome” person can be called a “dish,” there’s no etymological relationship. But there’s a semantic connection; both “dish” and “toothsome,” terms for good things to eat, have been applied to sexy people.
Shakespeare may have been the first to use “dish” in this figurative way, in reference to sexy Cleopatra: “He will to his Egyptian dish againe.” (From Antony and Cleopatry, 1606.)
But this was probably just a passing metaphorical use. It wasn’t until the 1920s that “dish” came to be used this way in general English.
The earliest modern example in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang is from Variety, that fountainhead of American slang: “She ought to be a swell-lookin’ dish in tights” (Nov. 25, 1921).
The OED has this hardboiled example from Dashiell Hammett’s The Dain Curse (1929): “He turned his half-wit’s grin on me and said: ‘What a swell dish you are.’”