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I understand that it means to acquire a new skill, but what does it refer to? It makes me cringe every time I read it!

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It doesn't mean to acquire a new skill. It means you acquired that skill long ago, presumably as an infant. – Oldcat Sep 5 '14 at 21:58
up vote 42 down vote accepted

OP is mistaken about the exact meaning of the expression. It's not about acquiring "new" skills, but about how you got started on the skills you already have. Here's a definition from dictionary.com

cut one's teeth on: to do at the beginning of one's education, career, etc., or in one's youth: The hunter boasted of having cut his teeth on tigers.

It's a metaphoric reference to when a baby's teeth first appear. They grow (cut) through through the gums - often painfully, which also gives us the figurative usage teething troubles.

Once the baby has "cut its teeth", it's properly equipped for the all-important "real-world" task of chewing solid food (metaphorically, for tackling more complex problems in professional life, etc.).

As that dictionary example suggests, the expression is often used boastfully/facetiously (in reality the hunter probably started with much less challenging prey, such as grubs, mice, and rabbits).

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Exactly. And children are given semi-hard things to chew on, to alleviate the pain and help the process along. – StoneyB May 27 '13 at 16:33
@ StoneyB: It's only through ELU that I've come to appreciate how often idiomatic usages are mis-heard or mis-repeated. So it's no surprise to me now to see how many instances of "cut his cloth on" should clearly have been teeth, not cloth. I guess that's how language develops over decades and centuries. – FumbleFingers May 27 '13 at 16:41
I haven't heard that turn, but it could be a reference to acutally starting the process of making clothes...you mess about with patterns and planning, but the rubber hits the road when you start with the scissors. – Oldcat Sep 5 '14 at 21:59
@Oldcat: I've no doubt at least some of the people who've used cut one's cloth on [something] where mainstream speakers use teeth do indeed have that (or some other rationalisation) in mind. But at the end of the day, I'm sure they've all misheard or misremembered the standard idiomatic usage (and/or mixed it up with various idiomatic versions of cut one's cloth to suit one's pocket). – FumbleFingers Sep 7 '14 at 21:46
@FumbleFingers, It has always been "cut his teeth". Indeed, "cut his cloth" doesn't even seem to appear much on Google. Where do you come from? – Pacerier May 20 '15 at 9:12

somehow it means that you can count on something that somebody says. Ashley says it to scarlet in gone with the wind.

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You should post the actual quote from the book if using it as an example. – dwjohnston May 23 '14 at 0:32
The question asked for the origin also - just noting that it was used in "Gone With The Wind" certainly doesn't answer where it originally comes from. – user3306356 May 23 '14 at 2:03
I'd be interested to see the usage in question, which seems very unusual. – Joe McMahon May 23 '14 at 2:43
@Joe: As it happens, I have the subtitles to Gone With The Wind to hand, so I can report the relevant exchange. Ashley: "Isn't it enough that you gathered every other man's heart today?". Scarlett: *"You've always had mine. You cut your teeth on it". Julie has simply misunderstood the meaning (her interpretation would make sense if you didn't know the idiom - it's just not correct). – FumbleFingers May 24 '14 at 19:53
Yep, agreed - it's the same "from early on" meaning. Thanks! – Joe McMahon May 28 '14 at 0:34

You should cringe, because it's original meaning is literal. Hilljacks literally use a pocket knife to scrape their teeth instead of a toothbrush. You can see for yourself at any number pay to shower facilities in and around the smokey mountains. Hill people still don't have running water or electricity in a lot of small towns and occasionally venture in for their quarterly clean up.

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The origin of the idiom has nothing to do with hillbillies scraping their teeth with knives. This is imaginative, but ridiculous. See FumbleFingers's answer, that is the correct origin. – Cyberherbalist Sep 5 '14 at 21:40

protected by tchrist Feb 22 '15 at 0:16

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