Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

White As A Hound’s Tooth

Posted by Elyse Bruce on February 22, 2013

Similar to the expression clean as a hound’s tooth (and sometimes used interchangeably with that expression), white as a hound’s tooth refers to the flawlessness of a person’s character or the perfect attributes of an item (large or small).

If it’s a romantic twist of phrase you’re looking for when it comes to using the expression, there’s not too many out there that than the piece entitled, “On Winter’s Trace” in Florence Fisher Parry’s column “I Dare Say” in the March 23, 1943 edition of the Pittsburgh Press. It read in part:

Dark shadows winnowing under the sea, seeking out death. Metal birds banking in the sky, seeking out death. Ships, no longer white as a hound’s tooth, seeking out death. Men and machines, seeing out death ….

Spring.

So I walked out where the air was cold against my forehead  I walked around what a few years ago had been swarded rows of proud old mansions. But now, along the noble facade of the street, great weedy gaps, piled with mossy rubble, gaped like empty cavities where once had smiled a pearly row of teeth … razed for taxes .. razed because there must be an end of wealth, and end of the steeples in the temperature-chart of the New World Doctors.

It’s always interesting to see how the expression is used and when it was found in the book, “Diseases Of Occupation And Vocational Hygiene” edited by George M. Kober, M.D., LL.D. et al, and published in 1916, the connection was with arsenic. In fact, this is what was included in the text:

In order to obtain white arsenic (arsenious acid) the ore is roasted and the arsenic so volatilized is collected in flues and chambers. This so-called “arsenic soot,” in the collection of which elaborate precautions in the shape of overalls and respirators are necessary to guard against the effects on the skin, is again submitted to heat in a refining furnace and the fumes again deposited in flues as white as a hound’s tooth.” Subsequently, the material is ground and packed in barrels usually by automatic arrangements preventing dust.

When the Newark Sunday newspaper of May 22, 1892 ran a story entitled, “The Large Ships.” The iron ship certainly sounded amazing.

She is 333 feet long, 48 feet broad, and 28 feet deep. Her four masts are each square-rigged, but she is far from clumsy aloft, is easily handled, and has run fourteen knots an hour for a while day. We are much impressed by her exceptional size; but for beauty she compares unfavorably with such a ship as the Thermopylae, or a large wooden-built ship of America having bright lofty spars and decks as white as a hound’s tooth. Iron decks do not lend themselves readily to adornment.

In the Irish Penny Journal, No. 1, Volume 1 published on July 4, 1840 a story written by Mrs. S. C. Hall and entitled, “The Irish In England: The Washerwoman” gives a birds’ eye view of how the Irish washerwoman, Biddy, and the English in the house, from the Mistress through to the other servants employed by the house.

The only regular washerwomen extant in England at this present moment, are natives of the Emerald Isle.

We have—I pray you observe the distinction, gentle reader—laundresses in abundance. But washerwomen!—all the washerwomen are Irish.

The Irish Washerwoman promises to wash the muslin curtains as white as a hound’s tooth, and as sweet as “new mown hay;” and she tells the truth. But when she promises to “get them up” as clear as a kitten’s eyes, she tells a story. In nine cases out of ten, the Irish Washerwoman mars her own admirable washing by a carelessness in the “getting up.” She makes her starch in a hurry, though it requires the most patient blending, the most incessant stirring, the most constant boiling, and the cleanest of all skillets; and she will not understand the superiority of powder over stone blue, but snatches the blue-bag (originally compounded from the “heel” or “toe” of a stocking) out of the half-broken tea-cup, where it lay companioning a lump of yellow soap since last wash—squeezes it into the starch (which, perhaps, she has been heedless enough to stir with a dirty spoon), and then there is no possibility of clear curtains, clear point, clear any thing.

In the “Journal of Llewellin Penrose: A Seaman” written by William Williams, and originally published in 4 volumes in 1783, the following is found:

I thought every minute of their absence an hour, so great was my anxiety. In about four hours they returned, and gave the following account of their expedition Bell said he found her to be Bermudian built sloop; she mounted guns, and had altogether a warlike appearance; her bottom was as white as a hound’s tooth. As they drew near her, he plainly heard some one say i English, “a rope for the boat,” with an oath tacked to the end of it. He then hailed them in Spanish, and was answered in the same language.

Without a doubt, the saying was used with great ease in 1783 and although it has probably been around for generations in maritime communities, Idiomation was unable to find the expression published any earlier than 1783. That being said, the phrase is definitely part of the 18th century with a great likelihood that it goes back a bit farther than that.

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