Where’s the “Wisdom” in Wisdom Teeth?
I am often asked why the maxillary and mandibular third molars are called “wisdom teeth.” An understandable question, with a relatively banal answer: it was thought that the third molars began actively erupting into the dental arches at the “age of wisdom,” at which adolescents become adults. As good a reason as any, I suppose.
An article (Atlas of Oral & Maxillofacial Clinics of North America, September 2012, The Nature of Third Molars: Are Third Molars Different than Other Teeth?, by Swift & Nelson) touched upon, among other things, the varying names for third molars in different languages around the world. To borrow from the article, terms for third molars from various languages include:
• English – wisdom tooth, from the theory that these teeth generally erupt in late teen years and early 20s; may refer to the concept that complete cognitive development of the human brain does not occur until approximately the same age
• Turkish – yas disi (twentieth-year tooth) refers to the age at which wisdom teeth appear
• Korean – sa-rang-nee (love teeth), referring to the young age and the pain of first love
• Japanese – oyashirazu (literally, “unknown to parents”), from the idea that they erupt in young adults after they have moved away
• Indonesian – gigi bungsu, for the last teeth to appear, referring to bungsu (youngest child) because these teeth erupt so much later than others, implying that the third molars are “younger” than the rest
• Thai – fan-khut (huddling tooth) due to the shortage of space for eruption
• Spanish – muelas de jucio (literally, judgment molars), referring to the pain they cause as they develop
• Dutch – verstandskies, a literal translation to English is “wisdom tooth,” but verstands can also mean standing far away, meaning the teeth furthest away from the mouth opening
These terms verify the special nature of the third molar, recognized in many diverse world cultures and languages for pain associated with eruption and presence, age at which these teeth erupt into the dental arch (young adulthood), and the generally insufficient space in the dental arch for the eruption of this tooth.