There’s no such thing as bad breath. If there was, we’d say that some folks had “good breath,” too, or maybe we’d have some sort of rating system in between, from superior or exquisite breath to satisfactory or competent breath. Nevertheless, we seem to have no lack of synonyms for the “bad” in bad breath — words like “atrocious,” “repellant,” “skunky,” and “hellaciously fetid” come to mind. But when it comes to breath, we ought to recognize that “bad” is really just a cultural value judgement. I’m certain that, in some colorful country somewhere, the odor of a goat’s ass emanating from one’s mouth is a sign of fine distinction.
Think about it. It’s not the breathing that’s bad. If it was, they’d make lung mints and everyone would smell of vapo-rub when they spoke. No, “bad breath” is a clever euphemism we use when we really want to say: “I believe my nose has detected evidence that something has died inside your upper gastrointestinal tract.” Whether it’s gum disease or something rotten that you recently ate — or a symptom of some larger systemic failure altogether, like gangrene of the throat — much of the unpleasantness of one’s mouth odor stems from its ghostly association with death and disease. From unhealthy dental habits to simply the rotting tissues of old age, bad breath is bad because our culture likes to celebrate health — fresh, minty life — not death.
And death stinks. Do you really expect your last breath to be minty-fresh?
Of course, some malodorous breath stems from eating foods that are unfamiliar to the nose. You can blow pepperoni and beer in my face all you like, and I’ll forgive you, but if I detect anchovies and Jaegermeister, please keep your distance. If your breath is gamey but fruity, I’ll raise my nose but wonder about where on earth you went for dinner. Like death, we fear the foreign, and some smells raise suspicion when they come out of some people’s mouths. As if they didn’t quite smell human. (We all know who the “germs that cause bad breath” really are, and why we need to kill them).
Halitosis, the commercials remind us, is the scientific name for bad breath. I want to know who Hal is and how his stinking toes got inside my mouth. But seriously, halitosis is very strange, because we often don’t know we have it until someone offers us a stick of gum and insists when we decline. How is it that everyone around us is holding our noses when we speak, but we don’t smell the garbage steam coming out from between our very own lips? Aren’t our noses closer to the stink pit than everyone else’s? It’s bizarre. Some of us become fixated on this, constantly holding a cupped palm up to our mouths to try smell our own breath. Of course, usually all we can smell is the filth on our own hands, instead, and we wind up catching a cold.
Speaking of colds, I’ve read that “the germs that cause bad breath” are sometimes symptoms of sinus problems and the flu. Bad breath isn’t exactly contagious, but it figures that if you catch a cold your breath can become as pungent as a petri dish. If you’ve ever deep-kissed a person with bad breath, I hope you like the flavor. (And I wonder: would you recognize your own bad breath if you gave me your cold and I blew it right back atcha?)
Policing our own breath is enforced by the media and the health industry, too. Mint is the dominant sign of purity. But I think there’s something strange about our fixation with minty fresh breath. How many of us brush our teeth with peppermint toothpaste, or pop a wintergreen TicTac, or chew a stick of spearmint gum before we meet a stranger or kiss a lover? How many of us pick our teeth with mint toothpicks after dinner, just before popping an after dinner mint? And how many out of that same group are willing to eat those same plants that they so desperately put into their mouths? I’ve rarely seen anyone put peppermint on their pizza. Yet for some reason, the aromatic foliage of the “mentha” herb family dominates our culture’s definition of “good” breath so much, that virtually the whole dental care industry is based on it. Mint has become the universal mask of the mouth’s bacterial growth. And the more unnatural the flavor of the mint, the better it seems to be. We’ve gone so far as to invent crazy gum flavors that don’t even exist in nature, with names like “Polar Ice” or “Cryst-o-Mint” or “Arctic Mint.” It’s as though these rare exotic mint oils were harvested from somewhere out in the frozen tundra, where man fears to tread. Eskimos and walruses apparently must have great smelling mouths. If the names aren’t extreme, the products make extraordinary promises to be extremely potent. “Icebreakers” is a brand of mint gum, targeted, I guess, at socialites who like to small talk about breath for lack of any other worthy topic. But an icebreaker is also a chisel — and while it’s true that I’ve known some people with breath that could kill a daisy, it’s never so thick as to need an awl to cut through. We need “BreathSavers,” I guess, when our tongues are drowning in our own fetid bacterial stew. Sugar to the rescue! And to me, “Altoids” sound like minty little alien robots, ready to burn away halitosis with some drool-inducing ray gun. They certainly burn. And while I don’t know what Clorets are really made out of — chlorophyll or chlorine? — they sound an awful lot like little droplets of chloroform to me. I suppose we need to knock-out our periodontal poisons before they knock out someone else with their stench.
Like Clorets, many oral medicines, in a quest not to smell too, well, “mediciney,” are mint-flavored or -scented, too. From lip balm to antacids, mint is everywhere. I’ve heard that there are even mint-flavored condoms. So what’s next? Peppermint suppositories?
In fact, my wife recently noted that the pills the vet gave us to force-feed our cats were flavored with something just like breath mints. “Why not make them salmon-flavored?” she asked, as the little tabby horkled all over her fist. “Then maybe they’d want to swallow it!”
She’s right — and the same should be true of humans, too. Imagine a world where we actually associated good breath with foods we actually liked to eat. We’d swish a mouthful of “Hamburgerine” in the morning, right after we brushed with “Tartar-Fighting Steak Tartar.” We’d suck on Beer-flavored Lifesavers during work, and spray our mouths with a little “Banana Split Binaca Blast” before we moved in to kiss our dates. An after dinner mint could finally be the desert it really is. Kissing would become more than just tasting each other’s toothpaste selection — it would become an exhilarating exploration of a surprising gourmet meal.
Maybe I’m over-reacting. Mint doesn’t taste so bad, after all. But I challenge the dental industry to invent some sort of mint-flavored dentures that we could just permanently install in our gums and get it over with. I’m tired of getting nickel-and-dimed at the checkout stand. I want mint-flavored teeth that never rot. And I expect them to come from Antarctica.