A Mouthful of the Italian Language (Part 2)

May 24, 2016


I denti

The Teeth

Stanno in compagnia nella rossa scuderia

   trenta cavallini bianchi e piccolini sempre sull’attenti.

Chi sono?

Sono i … (denti)

If you’re Italian, you may remember learning this verse as a child. If not, here’s the translation:

    They stay together in the red stable

    Thirty little white ponies always standing at attention.    

    Who are they?

    They are the… (teeth).

In every language, teeth come in various shapes and forms: denti da latte (baby teeth), denti del giudizio (wisdom teeth), canini (canines or eye teeth), denti molari (molars or back teeth) and sometimes denti sporgenti (“buck” teeth) — called denti da coniglio (rabbit teeth) or denti da cavallo (horse teeth) in Italian slang.  We all would like to keep una dentatura completa (a complete set of teeth) as long as possible, but at some point a person may end up with una dentiera (dentures) or denti artificiali (false teeth) – or, far worse, sdentata (toothless).

To keep una bella dentatura (a fine set of teeth), you have to take good care of them. Even the mundane chore of tooth-brushing (spazzolatura), like so many other things, sounds better in Italian. You use a spazzolino da denti (much more fun to say than “toothbrush”), dentifricio (toothpaste) and collutorio (mouthwash). (Click below to enjoy the "dance of the toothbrush.") 

Don’t forget  floss (filo interdentale) to clean between the teeth (fra i denti). I prefer toothpicks—if only for the delight of saying stuzzicadenti (from the verb stuzzicare, which means to poke, prod, vex, tease, allure or stimulate) or stecchino, which always reminds me of Roberto Benigni in his film role as Johnny Stecchino ("Johnny Toothpick").

For the sake of igiene orale (oral hygiene), you should visit a dentista (dentist) regularly for pulizia dei denti (teeth cleaning) or sbiancamento dentale (teeth whitening). In case of mal di denti (toothache), you may need an estrazione (extraction), devitalizzazione (root canal),  corona (dental crown), ponte (bridge) or impianto dentale (dental implant).

If you spend enough time in Italy, you’ll soon learn to cook pasta al dente (to the tooth) so it’s somewhat firm. If you’d like to grab a bite, you would say you want to mettere qualcosa sotto i denti corona (put something under the teeth). But wherever you eat in Italy, you need not fear that you’ll be left hungry (a denti asciutti—literally with dry teeth). You’re more likely to find yourself leccarsi le labbra (licking your lips).

In English, something may not be your cup of tea, but in Italian, non è pane per i tuoi denti (it’s not bread to your teeth). If you mutter, you’re said to parlare tra i denti (speak between the teeth). An outspoken individual speaks fuori dai denti (speaks outside the teeth). If you do something unwillingly, you do it a denti stretti (with clenched teeth). If you are holding a grudge, you have il dente avvelenato (the poisoned tooth).

If you are seriously ill, you might have to regger l’anima coi denti (hold onto your soul with your teeth). In other perilous situations, you must fight for your life con le unghie e coi denti (with nails and teeth—or “tooth and nail” in English).

Words and Expressions

Mettere i denti –- cut one’s teeth

Digrignare i denti nel sonno –- to grind one’s teeth at night

Denti di un ingranaggio –- cogs of a gear

Denti di una sega -– teeth of a saw

Denti del pettine –- teeth of a comb

Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

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