Dear Word Detective: My father keeps writing “tooth and tong” in our email exchanges but I have never heard that expression from anyone but him. I have always heard that expression as “tooth and nail” but I dare not tell him, even if it’s wrong (although I am not sure that it is). I saw your site so I thought that I would ask you. — John.
There is no “wrong” here, grasshopper. We do not judge. There is only your path, my path, and your father’s path, which just happens to lead to The Most Awesome Cliché Mashup Ever. Seriously, “tooth and tong” is a keeper, and I plan to begin using it as soon as I can find a conversation worthy of its greatness.
Oh, rats. I just made the mistake of Googling “tooth and tong,” and it produced around 40,000 hits for the phrase, so I guess we’re both late to the party on this one. Even Senator Orrin Hatch apparently used the phrase on NPR back in 2009, describing how he and the late Senator Ted Kennedy, although friends, frequently fought “tooth and tong” over legislation. But wait, it gets classier. A book of interviews with writer Truman Capote published in 1987 by Capote and William Inge quotes Capote (speaking of negative reactions to his 1966 book “In Cold Blood”) saying, “Mrs. Meier, wife of the sheriff at the jail, turned against me. And Duane West is one of my bitterest enemies. And they were sort of working tooth and tong.” So I think it’s safe to say that your father is traveling in pretty sophisticated company.
I’m not sure what, if any, technical linguistic term would fit “tooth and tong.” It’s not a “spoonerism” (named after Reverend W.A. Spooner (1844–1930) of Oxford) consisting of the transposition of letters, syllables, etc. (as in “The Lord is a shoving leopard” instead of “loving shepherd”). It’s also not a “malapropism” (from Mrs. Malaprop, a verbally inept character in Richard Sheridan’s 1775 play The Rivals), in which the word used is not quite the one meant (e.g., “The very pineapple of politeness,” rather than “pinnacle”).
So “mashup” will have to do for the moment. The phrases being “mashed up” in “tooth and tong” are both hoary clichés (itself a hoary cliché, of course) that could use a good mashing. The “tooth” comes, as you suspected, from “tooth and nail,” meaning “vigorously, with great determination, employing any means necessary” (“I am ready to oppose any such project tooth and nail,” 1892). The literal basis of the phrase, which dates to the early 16th century, is a fight so fierce that both teeth and nails are employed. The “nails” in the phrase are fingernails, but a common variant in the US, “tooth and toenails,” speaks to an even more savage determination. Devotees of the mani-pedi don’t stand a chance.
The “tong” in “tooth and tong” is borrowed from the phrase “hammer and tongs,” also meaning “with great determination and force,” though it doesn’t carry the same overtones of interpersonal violence as “tooth and nail.” The source here is the blacksmith’s forge, where long-handled tongs are used to pull the metal to be forged from the fire and hold it steady on the anvil while the blacksmith shapes it with blows from a heavy hammer. To undertake a task or a struggle “hammer and tongs” is thus to “go all out,” using great force, persistence and determination (“I work at least 60 hours … You can be going hammer and tongs from 6 in the morning to 12 at night,” The Age (Australia), 7/8/12).
Most of the web hits I found for “tooth and tong” use it in the sense of “tooth and nail” or “hammer and tongs” (the remainder were largely complaints about the “incorrectness” of the phrase). The use of “tooth and tong” by Truman Capote noted above, which is the earliest I can find in print, is interesting because he seems to be using it to mean “in cahoots” (or “hand in glove”) rather than “fiercely.” But he’s not around to ask, so I guess we’ll just have to use “tooth and tong,” however we see fit, in his memory.