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What Does "Armed to the Teeth" Mean?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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“Armed to the teeth” is one of many English sayings that can be traced back to the distant past. It is said to have originated in the oceanic pirating era of the 1600s in the Caribbean Sea near nations such as Jamaica, where it first came into common usage. At the time, guns were just adopting the invention of the flintlock, which came about in the 1680s, and they took a long time to reload after firing. Pirates, therefore, would carry several loaded weapons on them as they raided ships, with one in each hand, and a knife gripped in their teeth. Hence the phrase “armed to the teeth” began, and meant someone who was powerfully equipped and ready for action.

The modern meaning of idiomatic expressions tend to retain elements of their original intent, yet with altered connotations to fit current events and lifestyles. This particular idiom has gained a broader use and can mean someone who is equipped for any potential circumstance he or she might face when traveling or facing unusual circumstances. Examples would include having medications for any possible illness or financial resources for any possible setback.

Several other popular sayings have meanings that are related to “armed to the teeth” in contemporary cultures. One from the sport of American baseball is expressed as someone who is “covering all of their bases.” The popular American Boy Scout organization motto of “Always be prepared,” or “Be prepared,” is also similar, and is attributed to the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, who used the initials of his last name to formulate the phrase.

The first recorded evidence of the principle of being “armed to the teeth” exists in the Netherlandish Proverbs, a oil painting by Pieter Bruegel, completed in 1559. Bruegel was a Flemish painter of the period who populated this particular work, like several others of his, with literal versions of idiomatic expressions of the day. The illustration for this idiom shows a man in metal armor holding a knife in his teeth. The figure was painted into the lower lefthand corner of the painting and was one of dozens of figures in the work that were interpretations of proverbs of the time period. Though many of the expressions Bruegel illustrated in exaggerated fashion have since fallen into disuse by current western culture, the painting itself is expertly preserved and on display at the Staatliche Museum, or group of state museums, in Berlin, Germany.

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Discussion Comments
By rhawk — On Jan 03, 2012

It seems like a really good idea to go the Mad Max route when society becomes unstable. I've seriously considered it myself, buying all these weapons, storing 50 gallon drums of dried rice and fresh water for the Zombie Apocalypse.

But then you have to ask yourself: Are you really going to shoot people over a can of beans and a bottle of water? And do you really want to go on living when there's no longer any real joy in it, when all the little luxuries are gone and you're always looking over your shoulder for the mobs of brain eaters?

I don't know. Its one of those eternal questions like "what is love?"

By tigers88 — On Jan 03, 2012

A friend of mine is what you would call armed to the teeth. The thing is that he doesn't own a single gun. He is a huge collector of swords, knives, throwing stars, hatchets, basically anything with a sharp edge.

He has a room set up in his basement where he displays all his favorite pieces. It looks like the treasure room in a palace there is so much shiny stuff on the wall. A lot of the stuff he never uses, but he is actually pretty accomplished with a sword and a throwing knife. I'm not sure how long he would survive the zombie apocalypse but he's got a start.

By gravois — On Jan 02, 2012

It seems like more and more people really are armed to the teeth. There are hundreds of videos on youtube of people showing off ridiculously extensive gun collections.

Not only do they have a lot of guns, a lot of these people keep their guns scattered around their house in tactical locations. For whatever reason they have decided to prepare themselves for an action movie style shootout that could hypothetically break out at any time. And these people are so sincere about the threat they think they face. It's crazy stuff and there seems to be a lot of it these days.

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