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For the "Word for X" (or "No Word for X") file, from Sidsel Overgaard, "Danes May Bring Back Butter As Government Rolls Back Fat Tax", NPR News 11/13/2012:

Toothbutter: noun. Butter spread so thickly as to reveal teeth marks upon biting.

The fact that this word exists in the Danish language should help to explain what politicians were up against when they introduced the so-called "fat tax" just over a year ago. This is a country that loves it some butter (and meat, and all things dreadful to the arteries).

Distressingly, the NPR article doesn't tell us what the Danish word is. But Google translate tells us that tooth is "tand" and butter is "smør", and there's some confirmatory discussion of "tandsmoer" in this Wordreference forum from 2007, in which various Danes and visitors to Denmark are discussing, curiously enough, Danish pastries:

Well, when I lived in DK, I guess I only ate "snegle" on rare occasions, preferring instead — like most Danes that I know at least — "rundstykker" with a very thick layer of butter on them … so thick that my in-laws called it "tandsmoer." Then when I really went crazy, I'd put a piece or two of "chokoladepaalaeg" on top of the thick butter, on top of the white bread roll. So really … how much healthier than a snegl is a white-bread roll with full fat butter on it so thick you can see your teeth prints in it after you've taken a bite, topped off with chocolate?

More seriously … and to make this post more or less legal per the mods … how common is the concept of "tandsmoer" or is this just another of the now outmoded or unique-to-my-circle-of-family-and-friends phrases that I mistakenly still believe to be in use?


[…]  tandsmør is very much in use still – Personally I find it [emoticon of distaste] but I know a lot of people who have the same taste as you, BoTrojan [emoticon of extreme happiness]

Another response:

The expression Tandsmør is definately a common and well known thing in Denmark. Don't like it myself, but most people would expect that amount of butter on on their rundstykke if they ordered it with butter.

Perhaps Sidsel Overgaard left out the actual Danish word due to the problem described here

[tip of the hat to JM]


  1. A Danish Reader said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 10:06 am

    From my experience, the word tandsmør is broadly understood, but the practice isn't very common any more (in the young, educated, middle-class Copenhagen circles I move in). On the other hand, I'd expect it to be more widespread in rural areas, and among older and/or less educated people.

    Personally though, I guess I do spread my butter quite generously. But not quite on the tandsmør level.

  2. Lars Clausen said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    Mmmm… tandsmør. Definitely still known in the now-middle-aged, educated, middle-class Århus circles I grew up in. Though it was a special treat, normally reserved for small biscuits. We generally spread the butter fairly thin on regular bread.

  3. Lars Clausen said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 10:51 am

    And I should add that the first three online Danish dictionaries I found (don't have my paper ones here) all define it: (this one shows it in 7 of 8 different dictionaries, with a dictionary reference back to 1950)

  4. Fru Storm said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 11:56 am

    Tandsmør goes very well with 'smørtyve' (butter thieves), little bisquits shaped like a bowl so they can contain a lot of butter. Not as popular as they used to be but any Dane more than 40 years old knows them.

    For picture scroll to the bottom of the page.

  5. Jon Hanna said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 12:00 pm

    At one remove, when I heard of the tax I came to the same conclusion due to the English-speaking Danes and English-speaking Irish people of Danish descent, that I know, had the English word "toothbutter".

  6. Orin Hargraves said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

    Just to point out something fairly obvious but cool: the cognate status of smør with"smear" [(n.) in current senses deriv. of the v.; cf. obs. smear fat, grease, ointment, ME smere, OE smeoru, c. D smear, G Schmer, ON smjbr grease] and "schmear" (=a dab, as of cream cheese, spread on a roll, bagel, or the like.)

  7. Sili said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 1:17 pm

    Of course relatively few people still use (pure) butter.

    It's far more common to use a product with 25%-50% vegetable oil, that can be spread on even soft bread directly from the fridge.

    It can't be called "butter"/"smør" of course, but as Owen Hargraves points out the cognativity allows for "smearable"/"smørbart".

  8. Rod Johnson said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 1:59 pm

    I don't know what snegle is but I want some.

  9. Younger Danish Reader said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 2:27 pm

    I take both 'tandsmør' and 'smørtyve' to be quite widely known in my own 20-odd age bracket, if perhaps in somewhat infrequent use. At least, I'd be surprised if someone did not recognise the expression.

  10. Lugubert said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 3:00 pm

    @ Rod: I think you make sense. The Danish Wiki disambiguation page has for snegl 1) snail (the mollusc), 2) Archimedean screw or screwpump (probably other, similar, conveyors as well), and 3) a type of Danish pastry.

    Google pictures of "snegl bagværk" (snail bakery_products). I think you shouldn't be hungry when you try it…

  11. Younger Danish Reader said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 3:08 pm

    Oh, and a 'snegl' is a cinnamon roll.

  12. Rod Johnson said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 7:30 pm

    I was hoping it was something I could put on (or in) a bagel. Because, snegl bagel.

  13. Garrett wollman said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 8:12 pm

    Seeing this story made me mildly disappointed that the latest series of the BBC Radio 4 topical comedy quiz show "The News Quiz" ended a couple of weeks ago. (The host, for those who don't know, is a diminutive Danish woman, long resident in England, and most episodes include some sort of joke about either her height or her Danishness.)

  14. Bill W said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

    "I was hoping it was something I could put on (or in) a bagel. Because, snegl bagel."

    Isn't the g in "snegl", like so many other Danish consonants, silent?

  15. Henning Makholm said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 8:51 pm

    @Bill W: The g in "snegl" is not silent — at least inasmuch as it contributes to the pronunciation; the sound of the word cannot possibly be written "snel". However, what the g contributes is not a consonantal sound. Several generations ago it was some kind of laryngeal approximant, but in my generation it has fused completely with the vowel to produce a diphtong.

    The sound is more or less what could be written "snile" in English, except there's a stød intervening somewhere near the boundary between the /ai/ and the /l/.

  16. Boudica said,

    November 13, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    Snegl…like Schnecken in German?

  17. Sili said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 11:49 am

    The g in "snegl" is not silent — at least inasmuch as it contributes to the pronunciation; the sound of the word cannot possibly be written "snel". However, what the g contributes is not a consonantal sound.

    Come the Revolution it will be "snajl" in Reformed Danish.

    Incidentally, I only knew the word "smørtyv", but I had no real object to link it to until seeing the page linked upthread.

  18. TonyK said,

    November 14, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    My first take on "toothbutter" was that it must be a Glasgow term for an unprincipled fighter.

  19. kamo said,

    November 15, 2012 @ 9:18 pm

    I am loving Language Log so hard right now. That is all.

  20. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup: Election, WOTY, and terrifying origins | Wordnik said,

    November 16, 2012 @ 10:26 am

    […] and at Language Log, discussed using syllepsis in headlines while Mark Liberman took a bite out of toothbutter. Johnson explored the tu-vous distinction and, inspired by our Diwali post on Indian-Anglo words, […]

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