"as close as lips to teeth" (heard on NPR)

Paul Frank paulfrank at POST.HARVARD.EDU
Tue Nov 30 14:42:28 UTC 2010

On Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 3:01 PM, Barbara Need <bhneed at gmail.com> wrote:

> This is new to me, but a search of Google for the phrase got 12,000+
> hits, most of which seem to connect to the relationship between China
> and North Korea (which is how it was used this morning on NPR). When I
> tried to eliminate China and Korea, I got 16,000+ Googlehits, but,
> except for one reference to the relationship between the US and
> Israel, the ones I saw still seemed to connect to China. Is this
> originally a Chinese expression? Does it have widespread use beyond
> the China-North Korea link?
> Barbara

Hi Barbara,

To me this looks like a translation of the Chinese expression
chunchixiangyi (唇齒相依), which can be translated as "mutually
dependent," "to be as interdependent as lips and teeth," "as close as
lips to teeth" or even "mutually supportive," depending on context.
The locus classicus is the historical text known as the Records of the
Three Kingdoms (三國志), written by Chen Shou in the 3rd century CE. Chen
Shou uses it to describe the relationship between the Kingdom of Shu
and the Kingdom of Eastern Wu. The phrase also crops up in the Romance
of the Three Kingdoms (三國演義), a historical novel written in by Luo
Guanzhong in the 14th century and familiar to most Chinese people
(just about any cab driver in China can tell you the plot of this


Paul Frank
Chinese, German, French, Italian > English
Espace de l'Europe 16
Neuchâtel, Switzerland
paulfrank at bfs.admin.ch
paulfrank at post.harvard.edu

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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