Q: Why is a regular tooth doctor called a “dentist” while a specialist is a “dontist,” as in “periodontist” or “orthodontist”?
A: To begin at the beginning, the “dent“ (in “dentist”) and the “odont” (in “orthodontist”) are ultimately derived from a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European term meaning “biting,” according to The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.
This ancient term, which the American Heritage guide renders as ə₁d-ent-, may have been pronounced something like uh-dent. It was the source of the words for “tooth” in Greek (odous, odont-) and in Latin (dens, dent-).
Now let’s fast-forward to the mid-18th century, when English adopted the word “dentist” from the French dentiste, a derivative of dent (French for “tooth”) and its Latin ancestors.
What, you may ask, were dentists called before the 18th century? The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation for “dentist” has the answer:
“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.” (From the Sept. 15, 1759, issue of the Edinburgh Chronicle.)
Yes, for hundreds of years the term was “tooth-drawer.” The OED’s oldest example is from Piers Plowman (1393), an allegorical poem by William Langland:
“Of portours and of pyke~porses and pylede toþ-drawers” (“Of porters and of pick-purses and bald-headed tooth-drawers”).
As for those people you call “dontists,” the story begins in the early 19th century with the scientific term odontia.
The OED traces the term to John Mason Good’s book A Physiological System of Nosology, which he began writing in 1808 and published in 1820.
(No, the book isn’t about noses; “nosology” is the classification of diseases.)
Although Oxford doesn’t have a citation from the work, a search of the text online finds Good’s description of odontia as “pain or derangement” of teeth or their sockets.
Good explains that he chose a classical Greek source for his terminology because compounds based on odous (“tooth”) were “common to the Greek writers” in referring to toothaches.
Here are the OED’s dates for the earliest appearances of some words derived from odontia:
“orthodontia” (1849), “orthodontist” (1903), “periodontia” (1914), “periodontist” (1920), “periodontics” (1948), “endodontia” (1946), “endodontics” (1946), and “endodontist” (1946).
So why do practitioners of general dentistry refer to themselves with the Latin-derived “dent,” while dental specialists use the Greek-derived “odont”?
Well, the word “dentist,” borrowed from a Romance language with roots in Latin, showed up first, and it had become firmly established in English by the time Good used a Greek term to classify dental diseases almost a century later.
However, we can’t tell you why Good’s terminology rather than the earlier Latinate usage gave us the names for dental specialties and specialists that showed up later. Not all developments in English have clear-cut explanations.
One possibility is that the usage may have been influenced by the writings of the Scottish author John Gibson Lockhart in Blackwood’s magazine in the early 1800s.
Shortly before Good’s book on diseases was published, Lockhart used “odontist” as a humorous term for a dentist.
Lockhart published a series of highly popular comic poems and songs purportedly written by James Scott, The Odontist, a semi-fictional character based on a real dentist of the same name who practiced in Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Lockhart put so many of the real doctor’s phrases and friends into the poems and songs that Dr. Scott started behaving like a literary figure himself and perhaps even believed he was one, according to James Hogg, another Blackwood’s writer.
In Poetry as an Occupation and an Art in Britain, 1760-1830, a 1993 book of literary criticism, Peter T. Murphy includes this comment from Hogg about the real Dr. Scott:
“Lockhart sucked his brains so cleverly, and crammed ’The Odontist’s’ songs with so many of the creature’s own peculiar phrases, and names and histories of his obscure associates, that, though I believe the man could scarce spell a note of three lines, even his intimate acquaintances were obliged to swallow the hoax, and by degrees ‘The Odontist’ passed for a first-rate convivial bard.”
With the political conventions behind us, here’s an applicable excerpt from “Clydesdale Yeoman’s Return,” an 1819 poem by The Odontist that offers a farmer’s thoughts about a noisy political meeting;
For ’tis idle hand makes busy tongue, and troubles all the land
With noisy fools, that prate of things they do not understand.
PS: If you’d like to read more, we ran a post in 2014 on “dent,” “indent,” “dentist,” and their relatives.
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