I would like to know more about the idiom "like pulling teeth". For example, does anyone know its origin and first usage?

  • 2
    This is probably an idiom that is too easily constructed to have an origin that can be pinpointed. It has likely been around since shortly after the invention of dentistry. It simply draws an analogy with something that everyone agrees is painful. May 2, 2013 at 19:02
  • The earliest use reported in Google Books is Godey's Lady's Book for October, 1855: "Some people it's like pulling teeth to collect from; they dodge and shuffle, and ask me to call again, until sometimes I am quite out of patience." May 2, 2013 at 19:10
  • @DmitryBrant: When was dentistry invented? Anyway, the phrase is worthy enough for an entry in the OED.
    – Hugo
    May 3, 2013 at 8:24
  • I figured it meant "stubborn". Pulling teeth is hard to accomplish. "Getting an answer from him is like pulling teeth".
    – user49314
    Aug 7, 2013 at 15:31

1 Answer 1


The earliest quotation of the phrase like pulling teeth in the OED is 19th century:

1836 Knickerbocker Sept. 306 And for this service to the sons, what did I get from the sires? The pittance of a few dollars, which came like pulling so many teeth.

I found an earlier example from 1831 published in the Foreign Missionary Register of The American Baptist Missionary Magazine (Vol. 12, October 1832, No. 10), in the 23rd October 1831 entry of Mr. Judson's Journal:

When any person is known to be considering the new religion, all his relations and acquaintance — rise en masse; so that to get a new convert is like pulling out the eye-tooth of a live tiger.

The verb pull has been used to mean extract (a tooth) since at least the 17th century:

1626 First & Best Part Scoggins Iests (new ed.) 39 If you pull any of my neighbours teeth after such sort as you haue done.I will pull out all the teeth in your head.

  • Antedating sent to the OED.
    – Hugo
    May 3, 2013 at 8:22

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.