In a previous life, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was a historical reenactment buff of sorts, employing medieval torture techniques, like pulling out people’s tongues with his bare hands. Or, at least, trying to, he revealed in a recent interview with Sports Illustrated. Following through with this bloody task would have required a thorough understanding of the tongue’s anatomy and, it so happens, a wrestler’s strength.

Even he found it hard to catch and pull the tongue of a University of Miami football teammate who had mocked him during his student-athlete days. “He wouldn’t stop talking, so I decided to pull his tongue out,” Johnson said in the interview. “I stuffed my big ol’ hand into his mouth, and I had a couple of fingers around his tongue, but it was so damn slippery! I was quite serious about pulling it out, but I couldn’t quite get a hold of it.”

You may smell what the Rock is cooking, but he won't guarantee you'll be able to taste it.
You may smell what the Rock is cooking, but he won't guarantee you'll be able to taste it.

His struggle, had he succeeded, would have been twofold. First, as he noted, the tongue was hard to catch. This is because it’s slathered in saliva, which, in addition to the 99.5 percent of it that’s made up of water, also includes stuff like electrolytes, skin cells and white blood cells, digestive enzymes, antimicrobial substances, and, importantly, mucus. The slimy substance is meant to lubricate food that’s on its way down, but it doesn’t do a bad job of lubing up a hand that’s trying to grab a tongue, either.

But what if Johnson did get a grip on the poor guy’s tongue? If he yanked with all his might, how would he manage to rip it out? At what point would the tongue detach from the body? For all the work we put them through, we don’t give nearly enough thought to how tongues even work. A quick glance at their anatomy shows that yanking them out would necessitate some serious muscle tearage:

Tongue anatomy is way more complicated than you would think.
Tongue anatomy is way more complicated than you would think.

Take a moment to appreciate the network of musculature connecting the tongue to the throat. A tongue, despite what a neatly disembodied one might look like, splayed out cold on a deli counter, is deeply integrated with the throat’s muscles. But with enough force, the frenum — that’s the flap of muscle tethering the front the tongue — would rip, and at the back of the mouth, its four extrinsic muscles would rip away from the bones they’re anchored to. Tearing the thick hyoglossus, which keeps the tongue anchored to the hyoid bone, a horseshoe-shaped structure midway down your neck, would be particularly important.

The tongue's extrinsic muscles are what anchors it to bones like the jaws and other parts of the skull.
The tongue's extrinsic muscles are what anchors it to bones like the jaws and other parts of the skull.

Tearing out a tongue, then, would be like tearing out any muscle: Really, really difficult — but not impossible. To make their lives easier, medieval executioners used to use metal tongs to get a good grip on their wriggling foes (often heated, just to inflict more pain).

The torture of Hans Bret, an Englishman captured in Antwerp in 1576
Here, a man is having his tongue removed with hot pliers in preparation for burning at the stake.

Fortunately, pulling out tongues is no longer a common practice and, at least in most cases, is just a really scary threat. Such threats are especially scary, of course, when delivered by a charismatic and incredibly ripped former pro wrestler who, no doubt, has the upper body strength to follow through with his plans. Luckily, Johnson was thwarted by the tongue’s slippery first line of defense and gave up on his rage, as he noted in his interview: “Eventually I gave up, the fight ended, and two minutes later we were hugging each other. It was so dumb.”