‘Cut One’s Teeth On’: Definition, Meaning Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on January 16, 2024

Have you ever heard the saying 'cut one's teeth on' and wondered what it means? If so, you're in the right place. In this article, we'll explore the idiom's meaning, its origins, and how to use it in a sentence.

If you just want to know what it means, here's the short version:

  • To 'cut one's teeth on' something means to gain initial experience, develop skills, or learn the basics in a particular field, skill, or area.

What Does 'Cut One's Teeth On' Mean?

The idiom 'cut one's teeth' means to gain initial experience or expertise in a particular field, skill, or area of endeavor. It often refers to the early stages of learning or developing competence in a certain task or profession.

This saying is a perfect example of how idioms can't be interpreted literally. There's no actual cutting of the teeth involved. However, it is derived from the literal process of a baby's teeth emerging or "cutting" through their gums during infancy, which is a milestone in a child's development. In an idiomatic sense, it signifies the beginning stages of mastering a skill or profession.

So how do you use it?

Let's say, for instance, that you and a friend are talking about a favorite artist. You're curious about how they became so good and ultimately acquired fame.

Your friend might say to you:

'I heard she cut her teeth on local exhibitions before gaining international recognition.'

The original idiom is 'cut one's eyeteeth on,' but it was shortened over time to 'cut one's teeth on.'

There's a similar expression that also involves teeth, which is 'teething problems,' and is used to describe a difficult situation that is only temporary because the problems in question only occur at the beginning stages of a new process, so they will soon disappear.

The saying contains a verb ('cut'), which means you can change the verb form to adapt it to your sentence.

Some forms or tenses you might see are:

But the past indefinite 'cut' tense is the most common form you'll see it in since we usually use this sentence to refer to a past event.

Where Does 'Cut One's Teeth On' Come From?

The origin of the idiom 'cut one's teeth on' is closely related to the literal process of a baby's teeth emerging or 'cutting' through their gums during infancy. This developmental milestone is a natural part of a child's growth, and it serves as the basis for the figurative use of the expression.

The figurative usage of "cut one's teeth on" likely developed from this literal sense, indicating the early stages of gaining experience or expertise in a particular area, as someone "cuts their teeth" on the challenges and learning experiences they encounter.

Some sources say the idiom started being used in the early 1600s, but a little research suggests that the phrase was used in its literal sense then and only started being used in a metaphorical sense in the late 1800s.

The following 1893 passage from A Spasm of Virtue appeared in Kate Field's Washington and is an example of the idiom's earliest uses in print:

I wish I thought the millennium would arrive when women vote. There is no doubt they deserve it as much as men, but I question whether women will be a bit wiser in the use of the ballot than their fathers, brothers and husbands. I see no gain in Wyoming. ... I hope and pray for the best, believing that eventually women will be a beneficent factor in government. Until they cut their teeth on many mistakes, however, I do not look for cheerful results.

Examples in Sentences

Now that we've covered the meaning of this idiom and its origins, here are some example sentences that use it.

She cut her teeth on challenging research projects during her time in graduate school.

The experienced chef cut his teeth on the busy weekend shifts at a bustling restaurant.

He cut his teeth on repairing old cars in his garage, which eventually led to a successful career as an automotive engineer.

He cut his teeth on the competitive world of finance and quickly became a successful trader.

The company's CEO cut his teeth on small startups before leading a multinational organization.

The young detective cut her teeth on solving minor cases before tackling major investigations.

She cut her teeth on writing for a small blog and later became a bestselling author.

The athlete cut his teeth on local competitions before making it to the national championships.

The tech guru cut his teeth on coding in his parents' basement before founding a tech company.

The journalist cut her teeth on covering local news stories before becoming a foreign correspondent.

Other Ways to Say 'Cut One's Teeth On'

There are plenty of other ways to tell someone how you started out. They're great to use if you're looking for alternative phrases.

  • Get one's start on
  • Learn the ropes
  • Start from scratch
  • Earn one's spurs
  • Master the basics
  • Break into
  • Get one's feet wet

Concluding Thoughts

That concludes this article about this popular idiom. To summarize, when someone says they cut their teeth on something, they're telling you how they started out.

Are you ready to learn more English phrases and expand your vocabulary? Check out our idioms blog for idioms, expressions, sayings, and more!     

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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