I'd like to ask how verbs 'to be riddled with something' (idiom) and 'to teem with something' (phrasal verb) overlap each other and can we replace with one another in the same sentence?

For example:

...the judiciary are riddled with prejudices and the judicial system is filled with flaws, and innocent people will be executed.

His body was riddled with cancer.

Her typing was slow and riddled with mistakes.

The woods are riddled with rabbit holes.

The streets were teeming with tourists.

A river teeming with fish

( The sentences were excerpted from Oxford Dictionary Online)

  • Among other things, "riddled" almost always has a negative connotation, but "teeming" may be negative or positive (depending on the entities involved). Further, "riddled" implies a relatively static situation, while "teeming" implies that the "entities" are writhing about.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 1:32

2 Answers 2


The idea of many expressed by teeming comes from the semantic field of fertility and creatures being born ("teeming with maggots", or "teeming with tadpoles"), whereas the many expressed by riddle comes from the holes in a sieve [OE hriddel] ("riddled with bullet holes").

We would never say "he was teeming with bullet holes", though we could probably say "the carcass of the dead cat was riddled by maggots" since maggots do eat away flesh.

  • +1 for being spot on, with the addition that 'teem' also has the sense of 'pouring out', and is (or maybe was...) used as such in steel working, where the molten steel is teemed into a mould. Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 1:14

Where they are the same is in both cases you are filling something to overflowing.

Where they are different is that “teeming” happens on the surface of something, and “riddled” happens under the surface.

“The surface of the earth is teeming with life.”

“The earth’s crust is riddled with iron ore deposits.”

  • If the sea is teeming with fish, are they all walking around on the surface? Commented Feb 9, 2016 at 1:16

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