I’ve had more than my share of cavities and was forced to wear both braces and neck-gear for an inhumane period of time. Still, I did manage to dodge one oral health bullet — the exorcism of the wisdom teeth. The other day, I overheard a woman talking about how her son needs to have his teeth removed and didn’t know why they called them wisdom teeth. So — to the random lady on the BART train — this one’s for you…
I was surprised to see a lot of websites dedicated to answering this exact question. Clearly, I’m not the first to ponder the peculiar naming conventions of teeth. The official website for Brent L. Florine, D.D.S. explains that wisdom teeth are also known as third molars. “Third molars usually erupt in the late teen years, which coincides with passage into adulthood and is referred to by some as the age of wisdom.” Hence, we have wisdom teeth.
Makes sense, but that begs the question: Why do we have wisdom teeth at all, when so many people just have them removed? In other words, do they serve a purpose? The folks at WiseGeek.com write that wisdom teeth may be an evolutionary leftover from a time when tooth loss was much more common due to rot and trauma. Wisdom teeth would “fill in the holes” that were left by missing teeth, “making for a more complete bite.” Another theory, perhaps not mutually exclusive, is that wisdom teeth were from a period when the human jaw was larger. Over time, the jaw shrunk, but the teeth stuck around.
There are differing opinions on whether or not wisdom teeth should automatically be removed, or if it is “wiser” to wait until the patient has problems. That’s something to discuss with your dentist. A 1989 article from the New York Times reported that “80 to 90 percent of Americans have at least one impacted ‘third molar.’” More often than not, the human jaw just ain’t big enough.
So, that’s the story of wisdom teeth – they got their name because they symbolize the onset of intelligence. Ironically, they often end up getting pulled out. Maybe that’s why humanity seems to be getting dumber by the day…
Thanks for reading,
P.S. – Thanks for all the truly horrible jokes. I can’t wait to annoy all my friends.
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