The Grammarphobia Blog

On dents, indents, and dentists

Q: Is the “dent” in a car related to the “indent” in writing? And is a “dentist” related to either of them? He fills cavities, doesn’t he?

A: The words “dent” and “indent” have different etymological roots, but they’ve influenced each other over the years, so an offspring like “indentation” can mean either a “dent” or an “indent.” We’ll get to “dentist” later.

The noun “dent” is a cousin of dint, an Old English term for a stroke or blow, especially one with a weapon, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Old English term, dating from King Aelfred’s writings in the late 800s, is similar to dyntr or dyttr, words in Old Norse with the same meaning.

The OED describes “dent” as a “phonetic variant or doublet” of dint. “Doublet” is a linguistic term for one of two words derived in different ways from the same source—in this case, perhaps, Old Norse.

The word “dent” also meant a stroke or blow when it first showed up in Middle English, but that sense is now obsolete.

The OED’s earliest example of “dent” used in this sense is from Richard Coer de Lyon (circa 1325), a Middle English romance about the life of King Richard I of England.

Although the citation (With a dente amyd the schelde) refers to a blow against a shield, it’s easy to see how the term “dent” could evolve over the next two centuries to mean the result of such a blow.

The OED’s first example of “dent” in the modern sense is from a 1565 treatise written by John Jewel, an Anglican bishop, during a heated exchange of tracts with Thomas Harding, a Roman Catholic priest: “We haue thrust our fingers into the dents of his nailes.”

When the word “indent” first showed up in the late 1300s, Oxford says, it was a verb that meant “to sever the two halves of a document, drawn up in duplicate, by a toothed, zigzag, or wavy line, so that the two parts exactly tally with each other.”

The dictionary’s earliest example of the usage is from a May 15, 1385, document in a legal dispute between Robert, Earl of Fyfe, and John of Logy:

“To the wytnes of the qwylkis al and syndry in thir endentyt lettrys contenyt, tyl ilke parte of the forsayde endenturis I hafe put my Cele.” (The OED notes that the verb is implied here by the adjectival use of the past participle “endentyt.”)

You’re probably wondering why people would cut a legal document into two identical parts with a toothed line.

This was done, the OED explains, so that each party to a legal agreement would have an identical copy of the document, and “the genuineness of these could be subsequently proved by the coincidence of their indented margins.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins notes that the verb “indent” is derived from the classical Latin noun dens (tooth) and the medieval Latin verb indentare, which refers to the creation of those two-part documents intended to be cut with a toothed line.

“A particular use of such documents,” Ayto writes, “was between master craftsmen and their trainees, who hence became known as indentured trainees.”

The noun “indentation” showed up in its printing sense in the mid-1800s, and the short form “indent” followed in the late 1800s.

The OED’s first citation for “indentation” used in this sense is from an entry for the word in the 1864 edition of Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language.

Here’s a fuller description of the usage from Practical Printing, an 1884 book on typography by John Southward: “The first line of the paragraph … is shorter than the two following, there being a widespace at the beginning of it. This is called an indentation.”

No, we haven’t forgotten your question about “dentist.” As you’ve undoubtedly realized by now, it’s ultimately derived from dens, the Latin word for “tooth.”

English borrowed the word in the 1700s from the French noun dentiste, but it was “at first ridiculed as a high-falutin foreign term,” Ayto points out.

In fact, the earliest citation for “dentist” in the OED is an example of such ridicule. The cite is from the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle:

Dentist figures it now in our newspapers, and may do well enough for a French puffer; but we fancy Rutter is content with being called a tooth-drawer.”

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