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shameless pleading

Tooth Bottle

Just a snootfull, thanks.

Dear Word Detective:  I’m a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan; he is a virtuoso of the English language. I usually get all the allusions sprinkled throughout his fiction and can usually make sense of unfamiliar “Wodehouse-isms,” but one term employed in “The Code of the Woosters” leaves me scratching my head. Google has been quite useless in furnishing me with any shadow of a clue. The term is “tooth-bottle.” — Roderick Spode.

Roderick Spode, eh? Did you know you have a Wikipedia page? Quite a fetching picture, though you look a little peeved. In any case, you’ve put me in a bit of a bind with your question. I too am a huge P.G. Wodehouse fan, and “The Code of the Woosters” (1938) is peak Bertie and Jeeves. But I haven’t the space to explain much of anything about the Jeeves and Wooster canon except that Jeeves is Bertram Wooster’s valet (and much smarter than his boss). Wikipedia offers a decent summary of that story, one of Wodehouse’s more intricate creations, but folks should really read Wodehouse; the man was both a superb stylist and a true comic genius. The 1990 Stephen Fry/Hugh Laurie ITV series “Jeeves and Wooster” was also very good, although they did mess with the stories a bit.

In the relevant passage of “The Code of the Woosters,” Bertie is attempting to question his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle, newt-fancier and career wet noodle, as to why Sir Watkyn Basset has suddenly forbidden Gussie’s impending marriage to his daughter, Madeline Bassett. Midway through his explanation, Gussie expresses a desire for a drink, and Bertie replies, “The tooth-bottle is at your elbow,” to which Gussie replies, “Thanks! … Ah! That’s the stuff!” Bertie then suggests that Gussie “Have a go at the jug,” but Gussie declines, saying, “I know when to stop.” So it’s reasonable to assume that the “tooth-bottle” contains a small quantity of liquor, far less than “a jug.” But why was it called a “tooth” bottle?

After a long and fruitless search through books and online sources, I decided to turn to the smart folks at ask.metafilter.com, who quickly came up with a variety of theories and helpful links. It seems, for instance, that Enid Bagnold, playwright and author of “National Velvet,” had used “tooth-bottle” twice in a 1930 play (“Alice and Thomas and Jane”), in both cases meaning a small bottle containing wine. So it wasn’t a one-off “Wodehouse-ism.”

As for “why a tooth,” I strongly suspect that such small bottles or decanters took their name from their resemblance to the small glass toothpowder bottles of the era (“toothpowder” being the precursor of toothpaste). During the same period many home bathrooms also sported “tooth glasses,” small tumblers used for rinsing and storing one’s tooth brush. Since everyone was familiar with toothpowder bottles, it seems entirely plausible that “tooth bottle” would have gained currency as a slightly jocular name for a small “personal size” bottle of liquor or wine.

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