One of my wisdom teeth is coming in, and my dentist is on holiday. It’s my own fault: he’d warned me to have them taken out, and I hadn’t listened. On Monday, while waiting until I could take the next ibuprofen, I emailed intelligentdesign.org: ‘How do you account for wisdom teeth?’ The blessings of suffering?
I looked for mentions of wisdom teeth in fiction. Up came the novels of Ian McEwan: a wisdom tooth extraction provides a suspected criminal with an alibi in Saturday, and in On Chesil Beach, when the boy kisses the girl, ‘he probed the fleshy floor of her mouth, then moved around inside the teeth of her lower jaw to the empty place where three years ago a wisdom tooth had crookedly grown until removed under general anaesthesia.’ Wisdom tooth extractions also feature in stories by Mary Gaitskill (a woman finds the procedure a turn on), Joyce Carol Oates and Gabriel García Márquez. But the passage I wish I’d heeded is in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth: ‘While you’re still young, the important matter is the third molars. They are more commonly referred to as the wisdom teeth, I believe. That was my downfall… Have them out and brush three times a day, if my advice means anything.’
If Wikipedia is to be believed, calling third molars ‘wisdom’ teeth is an Indo-European fancy. In Turkish they’re ’20th-year teeth'; in Japanese, their name means ‘unknown to the parents'; in Thailand they’re ‘huddling teeth'; and in Korean, they’re ‘love teeth’ because they’re said to emerge just as one is also experiencing the pain of first love.