Not too long ago I was involved in a discussion involving the origins of this saying and we all left quite mystified, albeit with a lot of ideas. While plugging Charles Earle Funk’s book Thereby Hangs a Tale in the previous du jour Brain Know?, it occured to my I should look this saying up in his other favorite book of mine, Heavens to Betsy! & Other Curious Sayings. It didn’t quite answer my question, but it did satisfy my curiosity.
What I found was the saying “to be skinned out of one’s eyeteeth.” This was a new one to me, and just as odd as “by the skin of your teeth,” however, the explanation led me to believe our (my, I guess. Perhaps you don’t use it…) saying is a spin-off.
Oddly enough “to be skinned out of one’s eyeteeth” appears to be a spin-off of “to cut one’s eyeteeth,” or “to have one’s eyeteeth drawn.” So we are onto third generation sayings now…
So, as near as I can figure, with Mr. Funk’s help, “to cut one’s eyeteeth” means to have experience, to have grown old enough to learn something about something. “To be skinned out of one’s eyeteeth” means to have been taken advantage of, that is someone took away your ability to learn on your own and taught you the hard way. Which finally brings us around to “by the skin of your teeth.”
This expression is generally used to mean something along the lines of “just barely made it.” To my mind at least, it leads up to the idea that perhaps you ‘cut your teeth’ on this very incident, learning your lesson as it happened, thus preventing you from falling victim, but you “lost the skin of your teeth” in the process.