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Today in a UK court Mr Justice Cooke, in passing judgement over three disgraced cricketers, said

The image and integrity of what was once a game but is now a business is damaged in the eyes of all, including the many youngsters who regarded you as as heroes and would have given their eye teeth to play at the levels and with the skills that you had.

I understand that giving your eye teeth means that you want something a lot, but what is the origin of the expression?

(As a native English speaker, I had always thought the expression was "hind teeth" — as in the ones at the back that are painful to extract. It seems that I was wrong in this.)

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I also thought it was "hind teeth" too. "Eye teeth" is just silly! –  Hugo Nov 3 '11 at 13:20
    
Googling, I find that "given his eye teeth" is about 1000 times more popular than "given his hind teeth", though. Ngrams says the same. Note that eyeteeth as a single word seems to be more common than eye teeth. –  Daniel Nov 3 '11 at 20:39
    
Pulling a maxillary canines often leaves the patient with a black eye. –  Dr. Harms Dec 2 '13 at 20:47
    
I recently had an infection in my upper canine and the pain I felt was not in the tooth but in the eye area, such as a sinus infection. Perhaps there is a physical nerve connection from the upper canine to the eye area. At first I had thought it to be sinus trouble; however, after I had it checked out by a dentist he confirmed an infection in a "dead" canine tooth which required a root canal. –  Kathy Dec 23 '13 at 7:45
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7 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Eye-teeth

I had thought the term was hind teeth as well, but eye teeth it is. Wikipedia says:

In mammalian oral anatomy, the canine teeth, also called cuspids, dogteeth, fangs, or (in the case of those of the upper jaw) eye teeth, are relatively long, pointed teeth.

...

In humans, the upper canine teeth (popularly called eye teeth, from their position under the eyes) are larger and longer than the lower, and usually present a distinct basal ridge.

The term eye teeth goes back to at least the 17th century. The earliest I found is in the fascinating 1657 Nature's Cabinet Unlock'd by Thomas Browne:

and four eye-teeth, in either jaw two.

And the 1660 Lexicon Tetraglotton, an English-French-Italian-Spanish Dictionary by James Howell shows the translations all include eye:

The upper tußes, or eye-teeth ; Demi occhiali; Dents oeillères; Los ojales.

Give [...] eye-teeth

The earliest "give/gave [...] eye-teeth" is illuminating. 1836's The Way-Mark: In Which Some of the Turns of the Broad Road are Pointed Out says:

His shipmates all have their happiness placed upon their grog. If it was to confer every possible blessing, it could not be lauded- more, nor" sought after more eagerly. Your real sea-dog will give his eye- teeth for a glass of grog; it is a fact, that many a tooth has been drawn in exchange for rum.

Rather have [...] eye-teeth drawn [out]

A variant rather have their eye-teeth drawn [out] was said by a Mr. Denny on Wednesday, 17th December 1834 in Congress and recorded in two sources. Once in Congressional Globe says:

The gentleman believed that the manufacturers would rather have their eye-teeth drawn, than submit to the loss of the profit on a four penny nail, there were perhaps others, who would rather see the Union dissolved, than submit to pay ...

And again in Register of Debates in Congress:

The gentleman had remarked, in reference to the friends of she protective system, that they would rather have their eye-teeth drawn out than to submit to the loss of their profit on a ten-penny nail.

And also:

would sooner part with its eye-teeth than its profits on a ten-penny nail;

As soon part with [...] eye-teeth

From The Town and Country Magazine, or Universal Repository of Knowledge, Instruction, and Entertainment of 1779:

that a publisher would as soon part with his eye- teeth as a guinea, till I had completely earned it, and returned the books he had lent for translations and quotations.

And 1784's The European Magazine:

... and would as soon part with her eye teeth as with a guinea.

We can see the phrase has changed slightly from preferring to give your eye teeth than give/lose money; to the modern giving your eye teeth for something you really want.

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There's also Cotgrave's 1611, A dictionarie of the French and English tongues it mentions eye-teeth, though not for upper canines. –  Unreason Nov 28 '11 at 13:12
    
@Unreason "Dents oellieres. The upper tushes, or eye-teeth." That's word-for-word the same as the 1660 Lexicon Tetraglotton. A tush is "A long pointed tooth, in particular a canine tooth of a male horse". –  Hugo Nov 28 '11 at 13:19
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Yes, but above that "Dents molares. The great Jaw teeth, or eye-teeth; the grinders, or cheeke teeth, wherewith wee gently breake, and grind our meet." –  Unreason Dec 1 '11 at 8:52
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One's eye teeth seem to be more vulnerable when one is struck in the face. If you are a warrior you may be more likely to be missing an eye tooth. To give your eye tooth for something might imply you are willing to put up a fight for something that you desire.

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The teeth in front can be associated with health, strength, and attractiveness. People are often ashamed of having a poor smile due to loss of teeth or other problems. Probably overall means trading the value of your teeths attractivenes ( or utility in chewing food ) for something considered of equal value i.e. love, wealth

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There was (before scientific anatomy) a belief that the canines were directly connected to the eye. Whether this gave rise to the name, or the name gave rise to the belief, is lost in the mists of time.

1741 A. Monro Anat. Nerves (ed. 3) 159 The two superior‥are called Eye-teeth, from the Communication of Nerves which is betwixt them and the Eyes.

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+1 Thats interesting, thank you. Out of interest, where is the quote from? –  Tom Nov 28 '11 at 12:38
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The etymology of eye teeth is obvious - due to their position below the eye.

The etymology of the whole phrase give one's eye teeth - I would attribute this to the importance of the canines

Carnivores, on the other hand, need canines to kill prey and to tear meat.

Humans have four types of teeth - incisors, canine, premolar and molars. I would say that teeth have historically always been considered important for determining the health in humans (and animals) and of all teeth the eye teeth or canines are the most important.

Therefore the phrase come to mean

give one's eyeteeth, to give something one considers very precious, usually in exchange for an object or situation one desires

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Personally, I think my nose teeth are more important. (Also, my eyes don't cover my canines. Perhaps, historically, people had their eyes closer together) –  Tom Nov 3 '11 at 13:14
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Tom, you are speaking from a perspective of a modern man who eats supermarket food. Also, I don't think that etymological relation to eyes can be called in question - it is not unique to English language nor to human anatomy) –  Unreason Nov 3 '11 at 13:53
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Here is an attempt at explaining why people are eager to give even their eye teeth for something they truly desire

Why people seize on eye teeth as a dramatic way to indicate their longing for something is harder to get a grip on. If only you were asking about cut one’s eye teeth or cut one’s teeth, I could respond at once by pointing out that the eye teeth are among the last of a baby’s first set of teeth to appear and so to cut them (have them emerge from the gums) implies that babyhood is in effect over. To say that somebody has cut his eye teeth means he’s wide awake and isn’t easily fooled. If you’re cutting your eye teeth (or just teeth) on something you’re gaining experience in a situation you’re new to.

These suggest that eye teeth are especially valuable, because they figuratively embody hard-learned skills and one’s experience of life. The association with eyes results in an even more powerful evocation. To lose them would cause one to be severely hampered, not merely in eating but in everyday affairs.

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@z7sgѪ I'm not sure how I could have missed that. I'll be deleting my comments in a few minutes. –  jimreed Nov 3 '11 at 14:45
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According to world wide words, it's because they lie beneath the eyes.

The pointed long teeth — also called canines because they look a bit like those in dogs — are called eye teeth because the pair in the upper jaw lie directly below the eyes. Originally, only the upper pair were given the name but later the pair in the lower jaw also came to be called eye teeth.

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