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Why Are Teeth Named What They’re Named?

We talk about our teeth a lot, but how much thought have you given to the different types of teeth you have? 

Today, we will discuss the different types of tooth we have and how they got their unique name. The normal adult mouth has 32 teeth comprised of eight incisors, four canines, eight premolars and eight molars including four wisdom teeth. Each type of tooth has a different function and is plays an important role in eating, speaking and swallowing. 

Why Are Teeth Named What They’re Named?
Why Are Teeth Named What They’re Named?

Keep reading as we break down the meaning behind the name of each tooth and explain how the type of tooth plays a unique contributing roll in the mouth! 


Adults normally have eight incisors. Incisors are further broken down into four categories with two of each type found in the mouth:  

  • Maxillary central incisor (upper jaw, closest to the center of the lips) 
  • Maxillary lateral incisor (upper jaw, beside the maxillary central incisor) 
  • Mandibular central incisor (lower jaw, closest to the center of the lips) 
  • Mandibular lateral incisor (lower jaw, beside the mandibular central incisor) 

The word incisor comes from the Latin incidere, or “to cut.” These are thin and with a flat bottom and help with taking the first bite of food. They are perfect for cutting and tearing food and helping to begin the process of breaking it into manageable bites.  


Known as either a canine tooth or cuspid, these fang-like teeth are what liken us to other meat-eating mammals like wolves. Their primary function is to rip and tear food. There are four canine teeth: two in the upper (maxillary) and two in the lower (mandibular) arch. A canine is placed laterally to each lateral incisor. They are larger and stronger than the incisors, and their roots sink deep into the bone. 


Located between the canines and the molars, premolars are considered transitional tooth that have the primary function of gnawing and chewing on food. They are considered transitional since they have properties of both the canine and the molar. These teeth are also known as bicuspids, which literally means it has two points or prominences. Premolars have two peaks which helps to more efficiently break down food.  


Finally, molars are the tooth that is most associated with breaking down and doing the bulk of the chewing. Molar comes from the Latin term molars dens, meaning “grinding tooth.”  

The molars are the largest of the tooth. They have a large flat biting surface. The function of the molars is to chew, crush and grind food. 

Included in the molars are wisdom teeth. However, as our jaws have gotten smaller, our teeth have become too crowded which means many times wisdom teeth are pulled. Third molars have been referred to as “tooth of wisdom” since the Seventeenth Century and simply “wisdom teeth” since the Nineteenth Century. The third molars generally appear much later than other teeth, usually between the ages of 17 and 25 when a person reaches adulthood. It is generally thought that they are called wisdom teeth because they appear so late, at an age when a person matures into adulthood and is “wiser” than when other teeth have erupted. 

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