Now this really is mainstreaming. Just before he disappeared behind the pips at the end of the Today programme last week John Humphrys declared that he was off to practise “kissing my teeth”. I’d like to see that. It would bring a new level of scepticism to his interviews with the great and powerful.
The context was text-speak. Texting is changing the language, it was said. Michael Rosen, the former children’s laureate, who has written a book about the history of letters pronounced himself for progress and evolution. Abbreviations and codes, including that urban, youthful indication of frustration and discombobulation that caught Humphrys’ imagination; KMT – kissing my teeth.
Hilarious that among the gifts we of African and Caribbean origin bring to the culture should be the kissing of the teeth. But it’s not to be embarked upon casually. The basic manoeuvre is a sucking of air through the teeth from behind pursed lips – or as academics describe it, a “velaric ingressive airstream involving closure at two points in the mouth“. But thereafter there is nuance. There is the short, sharp kiss from the front teeth on either side. Usually this denotes minor irritation or mild disapproval. It may be deployed with a shake of the head and perhaps the glimmer of a smile, recognising the absurdity of what has transpired.
Moving up the scale, there is the sucking from further back in the mouth. Longer in duration and louder, this responds to episodes occasioning deeper incredulity. Recounting how a hapless driver hit your car or responding to anything my late mother might have called “foolishness”. This intermediate kiss will often be deployed by school pupils resisting instruction because it is loud enough to signal non-compliance but quiet enough to allow deniability. For a time, young black men found its mere deployment in the presence of a police officer could get them arrested.
The real heavy weapon is the full-frontal: lips fully pursed, air drawn through the mouth at the very centre – a sign of real and deep frustration. Most potent when elongated and dripping with disdain, this is not often deployed but used properly it can be devastating. When George Osborne says: “We’re all in it together,” Humphrys should let rip.