Given it's nearly Easter, I was eating some fruity Jelly Beans (I had forgotten how good they are) and my Indian friend said that he loved them because he had "sweet teeth".

I corrected him, saying 'for reference we'd usually say, "I have a sweet tooth"', but I couldn't think of a reason why besides convention.

I found it in some old books from the 17th century, but some other sites claim it comes from the 14th century.

I realize the term refers to a person's fondness towards sweet tasting foods, but how did it start to be so? And how come it's not plural?

From an idiomatic perspective, the expression was coined during the Middle Ages with the simple combination of two common terms. The second term, tooth, was already used idiomatically meaning 'taste, liking'.

Sweet tooth (n.) :

  • "fondness for sugary stuff," late 14c., from sweet (adj.) + tooth in the sense of "taste, liking" (see toothsome).

Toothsome: (adj.):

  • pleasant to the taste," 1560s, from -some (1) + tooth in a figurative sense of "appetite, taste, liking" attested from late 14c. (compare sweet tooth, also figurative use of palate). The extended sense of "attractive" (1550s) is attested earlier.

(Etymonline)

From a scientific perspective the origin of our perception of sweet vs bitter tastes has a much older story:

The Evolutionary Origins of the Sweet Tooth

  • The evolutionary explanation for the sweet tooth revolved around that idea that we have physiologically associated a sweet taste with high-energy foods which would have helped our earliest ancestors survive better in their environment (getting more “bang-for-the-buck”….if an individual has to spend time and effort foraging for food, it’s better to obtain energy-dense food items than energy-poor food items). When one considers our ability to taste, our ability to perceive “sweet” is relatively weak, while our ability to perceive “bitter” is generally considered much stronger (in fact, the strongest of our taste reception, on average). Perception of “bitter” is thought to be an evolutionary strategy of quickly identifying plants that contain potentially harmful toxins (produced as secondary plant compounds). Thus, evolving a low tolerance to “bitter” and a high tolerance to “sweet”‘ might have promoted our ancestors to actively seek out sweet tasting foods.

(Interview at The Smithsonian, evolutionary biologist Jason Cryan )

  • The second term, tooth, was already used idiomatically meaning 'taste, liking' - do you know any more about how that came to be? – Zach Saucier Apr 2 '15 at 13:27
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    @ Zack Saucier - I think it is a figurative meaning whose origin may be easily intuitive: Tooth Fig.: Taste; palate."These are not dishes for thy dainty tooth ."finedictionary.com/tooth.html. Think about food in Middle Ages where eating involved the use of teeth much more than nowadays. – user66974 Apr 2 '15 at 13:37

Let me answer your last question first: a sweet tooth is a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which "a part is used for the whole or the whole for a part" (Webster's Dictionary, New York 1994, or online).

I can't provide a sound derivation for that idiom, as the sources available to me (easily, I'm sorry I can't comb through the 284,000 Google results) with etymological information about it are pointing to the 14th century as to its origin, provide the meaning we're referring to today (see, e.g., OED), but don't explain if this really was the first and original meaning.

(As to dating, let me tell you that finding a book from the 17th century containing the term in question doesn't mean the term originated in that period while other sources claim an earlier date. What you find on the first three pages of an ad-hoc internet search is never the big picture.)

But let us take a closer look at that source you found, the Nouvelle Facile Methode Pour Apprende l'Anglois, from 1698. The portion of the text containing our sweet tooth quote reads as follows:

The great Mutton is commonly course [coarse], and is not for a sweet Tooth. – But the small Mutton (or rather the middle size) such as feeds in dry Pastures, is very palatable.

Sweet doesn't necessarily mean tasting like sugar but can also mean fresh, pleasing, delicate, agreeable, dear, or easily managed. Now that we have the pair of opposites: not for the sweet tooth/palatable referring to mutton it seems highly improbable that sweet should mean sugarlike in this context, but, as palatable suggests, rather something like pleasing or delicate.

Now mind the left column providing a French translation of the English text:

Le gros Mouton est generalement grossier, & ne se mange guere parmi les honnêtes gens. – Mais le petit Mouton, qui pait dans les Lieux secs, a un Gout fort agreable. [The big mutton is coarse in general and is hardly appreciated among noble people. But the small mutton, feeding on dry pastures, has a very pleasing taste.]

This gives us a hint what people having a sweet tooth might have meant originally: People who are very delicate and paticular about what they eat, implying people from the upper classes who could afford being delicate.

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    Sweet meaning tasting like sugar in that context is also possible. Medieval and Renaissance cuisine was full of sweet and sour dishes, or at least was for those who could afford sugar and honey. In that context, "sweet tooth" is likely euphemism for gentlemen. – Denis de Bernardy Apr 2 '15 at 7:26
  • For what "whole" is the sweet tooth a synecdoche? The whole head? I think the phrase is just a metaphor. – Malvolio Apr 2 '15 at 20:03

Have we thought about the connection to dental cavities and sugar sensitivity? As in a 'sweet tooth' as a term could have originated from pain from the decay in the tooth when exposed to sweets?

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