Of mice and Mary: names for the tooth fairy in other countries
You know that thing where you hide body parts so that a mythical creature can find them? Right? No, it’s not the premise for a supernatural serial killer drama – I’m talking about the tooth fairy, and putting your teeth under the pillow so that he/she/it will exchange it for cash. Usually these are baby teeth or deciduous teeth, from decidere meaning ‘fall down or off’ – which is why the same word is used for trees that shed their leaves annually.
But just how old is the tooth fairy? I’m not being disrespectful – I’m sure it looks great for its age, if anybody ever saw it. Rather, how long has the word been in use? Perhaps surprisingly, the current edition of the Oxford English Dictionary dates tooth fairy to the mid-20th century. The custom of giving children money when they lose their teeth is much older, though – dating at least as far back to the thirteenth-century Eddas.
So, what other names has this mythical creature been given in other languages? And what do they do with all these teeth that they’ve been hoarding over the years?
What do mice call their false teeth? Rodentures. Yes, you’re quite right – I am hilarious. But it’s worth noting, in a more serious and etymological frame of mind, that there’s no verbal link between the dent in dentures and that in rodent – though rodent does come from the Latin verb rodere, meaning ‘gnaw’.
I haven’t just changed topic for no reason. In some European countries, it isn’t a fairy who goes out to scoop up molars – it’s a rodent. In Spanish-speaking countries, El Ratoncito Pérez or Ratón Pérez (Perez the Mouse) does the deed. He’s also known as el Ratón de los Dientes (‘the tooth mouse’) in parts of Mexico, Peru, and Chile.
Perez has been busy since the late 19th century – and has a French-speaking comrade in la petite souris (‘the little mouse’) who performs the duty in France and the French-speaking parts of Belgium. In Italy, it’s a small mouse called Topolino who collects children’s teeth.
Mice might be the mainstays of tooth collection, but in the Basque Country its Mari Teilatukoa who’s capturing canines. (In passing – canine for the tooth and canine meaning ‘dog’ come from the same root; the teeth in question are clearly considered particularly dog-like. And the houndstooth large check pattern with notched corners is so-called because it is suggestive of the canine tooth.)
What does Mari Teilatukoa mean? It literally translates as ‘Mary from the roof’, and you have to throw your teeth up to it. I’m not sure what happens should they be truly deciduous and come down again; this is one of the occasions where the tooth fairy and its flying ability offers a distinct advantage. Continuing the throwing theme, in some Middle Eastern countries teeth are traditionally thrown upwards towards Allah or towards the sun, a practice found as early as the 13th century.
And what of ‘fairy’?
And what of the word fairy? While we now know the word to mean ‘a small imaginary being of human form that has magical powers, especially a female one’ – or, for the ornithologically minded, a Central and South American hummingbird with a green back and long tail – the earliest uses were a little different.
Fairy is first found around 1330, where it meant ‘enchantment, magic’ or an instance of this – in a sense that is now obsolete. Around the same time, it was also used to denote ‘a magical or enchanted land or domain’. It was only later in the 14th century, according to current evidence, that the word transferred to ‘the supernatural or magic beings inhabiting such a realm’, and, at the turn of the 15th century, ‘one of a class of supernatural beings having human form, to whom are traditionally attributed magical powers and who are thought to interfere in human affairs (with either good or evil intent)’. The earliest known use in this sense comes from Chaucer’s ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’, in The Canterbury Tales.
You might think that the spelling faerie, perhaps most-remembered in the title of Edmund Spenser’s 1590 epic poem The Faerie Queene, is an earlier version of fairy. In fact, it’s the other way around – Spenser was the first to use this spelling in English (in an earlier work, The Shepherd’s Calendar), apparently as a pseudo-archaic alteration of fairy echoing the OId French faerie. It was originally used largely interchangeably with fairy, though more recently faerie has often been used to suggest a more sinister variety of fairy creature. The sort, perhaps, that might not wait until your tooth is loose before coming at night to take it away…