Have you ever met a sweet tooth fairy? A sweet tooth fairy isn’t an especially congenial version of the mythical childhood creature, nor is it an epithet for the actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays a kind of muscular lunk of a tooth fairy in a new movie. It’s a combination of two two-word phrases that, when overlapped, make a certain cockeyed sense. Sweet tooth + tooth fairy = sweet tooth fairy.
The term sweet tooth fairy was coined by Graham Hidderley/Burgess, a grandfather, marketing maven, and actor in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom, who collects examples from everyone from his grandchildren to the fellow actors he meets on casting calls. “It turns people on – I don’t know why, but it does,” he says.
Today Hidderley/Burgess – and yes, that’s a slash in his name, which he and his wife prefer to the more pedestrian hyphen – runs a website, The Illustrated Sweet Tooth Fairy, with visual representations of several sweet tooth fairies (including a very nice olympic torch song). He sees the website as a place holder for the eventual book he’d like to publish, and as a way to get teachers, especially art teachers, interested in this kind of wordplay.
With sweet tooth fairies, Graham Hidderley/Burgess has found one of the more compelling and addictive species of wordplay in English. Once you meet the sweet tooth fairy, you will see the touch of her phrase-combining wand everywhere, whether you want to or not. They’re easier to find than palindromes, less difficult to engineer than anagrams, and less groan-worthy than Tom Swifties (” `The atmosphere feels different today,’ said Tom, airily.”).
The best sweet tooth fairies take a dramatic turn in the middle, merging wildly divergent things: magnetic personality disorder, poetic license plate, and victory lap dance. Some are self-reinforcing: fresh meat market, hard right wing, peer pressure cooker. Others are self-negating: frugal living large, upwardly mobile home, remote control freak, uninvited guest list. For word people, these little phrases offer much the same “aha” satisfaction as that famous optical illusion known as a Rubin vase, which forces first one interpretation (it’s a vase!) and then another (it’s two faces!). By putting words into an unaccustomed double role, they let us see ordinary English words for the truly versatile actors they are.
Some sweet tooth fairies seem as if they should be everyday items in the real world: It’s easy to imagine such things as party school supplies, red carpet bombing, and a grease monkey wrench. What driver isn’t speed camera shy? Some you wish actually existed: radio spot remover (does it remove stains with radio waves or does it fast-forward through radio ads?) and parlor game warden (a referee to enforce the rules of parlor games). Many nightspots and hotel bars would be pleasanter places if there were a piano bar exam. And who wouldn’t want to see the North pole vault? Or a drag queen bee?
Most, however, are just plain funny: hired hand sanitizer, mind control-top pantyhose, bikini wax museum, Nobel prize fighter, pistol whipped cream, grain elevator shoes, false alarm clock, sex bomb shelter, dance card shark.
A few days after Hidderley/Burgess first defined the sweet tooth fairy and started posting examples on another language website, the idea started to take off. “It snowballed,” he said. “Took me completely by surprise.” Those new additions spurred more, and they even started fragmenting into subtypes.
There’s the closed sweet tooth fairy, which begins and ends with the same word, such as run dry run, human being human, and school dance school. Some of the closed sweet tooth fairies almost seem like miniature ecosystems: sugar cane sugar, fair play fair, shop talk shop. There’s also the perfect sweet tooth fairy, a naturally-occurring three-word phrase that can be decomposed, as it were, into two separate two-word phrases: mint chocolate chip, white trash bags, ice cream soda, milk chocolate pudding, modern English usage.
There’s even a term for attempts that don’t quite meet the requirements, like remorse code or landscapegoat. Hidderley/Burgess calls these false teeth fairies.
Some truly ambitious language-philes compete to create long, virtuosic chains of overlapping phrases: knotty pine tar baby grand total cost savings account or common cold call in bloom county fair game boy wonder. (I find it’s much easier to understand these super-sized versions if you read them aloud.)
Why is the sweet tooth fairy phenomenon so addictive? Nearly everyone can think them up, for one thing, and you get a satisfying pop of absurdity when one comes together. We all know how illogical and contradictory English can be, but sweet tooth fairies let us turn even the most banal and familiar parts of our language – sweet tooth, tooth fairy – into something strange and wonderful.
Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of wordnik.com, which maintains its own online list of sweet tooth fairies.
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