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A history of mouthing off

My sainted grandmother often said, “The devil always finds something for idle hands to do.” This probably is true. I cracked up when Jay Leno commented that when his bandleader, Kevin Eubanks, had a birthday party, out of his birthday cake popped a hand.

But if the devil puts idle hands to work, he also puts idle minds to work. Recently, when my mind found nothing significant to do, it dredged up what must rank as a trivial subject for pondering: the mouth.

Actually, this thought did not appear from somewhere out in the cosmos. It became stimulated by a magazine item I was reading, about how a supermodel learned to smile correctly. She said her smile had been embarrassingly deficient until a coach told her to open her mouth when she smiled. She tried it and found that her smile became instantly more beguiling.

I realized I tend to smile with my mouth closed. This possibly comes across as insincere, so I tried opening my mouth when I smile. Feels awkward. I am not sure it is generating any additional response from the smile recipient but I keep practicing. If it works for a supermodel, it might work for me.

On the other hand, there is nothing that makes a person, especially an older person, look more stupid than walking around with an open mouth produced by nothing more than a sagging jaw. Add a pair of glazed-over eyes and you’ve got a portrait of senile dementia.

From these inconsequential concerns, my roving mind drifted to a host of equally trivial matters. With Thanksgiving dinner just ahead, fortunately I will not have to be looking at any relatives who chew their food with open mouths. But the mouth can and does produce other effects I do not find attractive.

I have heard the old statement that a human’s mouth has more germs than a dog’s mouth. That may be true but I remember a medical doctor telling me, “Never kiss a dog.” He said humans can get parasites from kissing dogs which can be fatal to humans, although dogs seem unaffected. That is okay by me. I have no desire to kiss a dog, or a cat either.

This leads my restless brain to that old French saying “Chacun a son gout.” That is what the old lady is supposed to have said (“Each to his own taste”) as she kissed the cow. I feel even less desire to kiss a cow than to kiss a dog or cat.

I start thinking about people who pierce their tongues. How do they keep those knobs from chipping their teeth? Last week, in one of my classes, a student told of a case she knew where a man had the front section of his tongue split into two halves. She said he was able to flip either side of the split tongue at will. This created, for the first time in my experience, a literal demonstration of that reputed American Indian complaint, “White man speak with forked tongue.”

On and on my mind wandered through many mouths. The mouth has figured in a number of memorable American sayings. The tycoon Ted Turner, for many years was called “The Mouth of the South.” A political figure was called “the mouth that roared,” a play on the movie title, “The Mouse That Roared.”

I also recall the term “mouthy” for someone who talks too much. How about, “Put your money where your mouth is,” or that biting accusation, “motor mouth?”

A common black expression from the 1940s and 1950s was “brings a lot of mouth,” meaning excessive talk. The harmonica, from the 1920s through the 1940s, was called the “mouth harp.” They had a lot of funny names for things back then. One mouth-activated musical device was called a “jew’s harp.” I have no idea what this name became after political correctness set in. Actually, I haven’t seen one of the gadgets for a long time.

“Chops” continues to appear as a name for one’s musical technique, going back to the 1920s. This was originally a mouth term. It apparently got frequent use when applied to Louis Armstrong’s lips and teeth when he played the trumpet. Eventually, “good chops” became applied to any good musical ability, whether it referred to the mouth or the fingers or whatever body part.

Political correctness also caught up with tooth replacements. What formerly were called “false teeth” became “dentures.” George Washington had famous false teeth, possibly made of wood, possibly bone; the stories differ. This was supposedly one reason his portraits always showed him with his mouth closed, although biographers say he frequently remained quite terse in his conversation. (It is also reported that he almost never shook hands.)

My roving mind led me to wonder if there exist any good historical stories about the mouth, and I did find one about false teeth.

This reportedly happened to Edward Drinker Cope, who lived from 1840 to 1897. He worked as a paleontologist and collected a huge number of fossils from the western United States. Cope was a Quaker and declined to carry a gun, even though his explorations took him into areas occupied by hostile American Indians.

One time, the story goes, he found himself surrounded by Indians who evidently intended to murder him. He tried to distract them by removing and putting back his false teeth. The Indians became fascinated by this activity. They made him do it over and over and finally released him unharmed.

Following Cope’s example, I like to believe I can release my mind unharmed from this brief flight into insignificant thinking.