One point to consider in language is how much our pronunciation is influenced by spelling, or by other words that sound similar enough to be confusing. I often think it would be interesting to come back in three hundred years and see how far the language has gone, considerng that we are living in a time of unprecedented wideespread literacy.
In this word, dent, we have a prime example of a word that has been influenced by other lexical items that appear similar but have entirely different roots. On first glance, you might think that it looks similar to the first element in dentist, dental, denture, etc. Could it be from the Latin word for ‘tooth’?
The modern version of the word may indeed have been influenced by Latin dens (the genitive form of the word is dentis), and we can see some effects of that influence in texts from the 14th century. Let’s take a look at these two lines, that come one after the other, from Sir Degarre, a Middle English Romance dating to 1330.
In þe helm he set his dent.
In þe sscheld he set his dint.
(He struck the helm,
He struck the shield.)
But wait. What’s going on here? No one said anything about striking did they? Well, that’s just it. Around 700 years ago, that is exactly what dent meant. A blow, a strike. Think about what might happen if you strike something soft, or even something hard with enough force. You might leave a dent.
Now take a look at the Middle English lines again. You may notice that dent is expressed as dent in one, but dint in the other. This is because the early Middle English word was dint, but there were dialectal variations starting to become more popular at that time, and one of these was dent.
Not only that, but the Latin word dentis had crept into English through other words, such as endenten, ‘to make notches’ (with the appearance of teeth-marks). These new additions to the languages started to affect the early Middle English word dint, as people, taking their cues from the ever more familiar dialect words, assumed that they were really part and parcel of the same word.
Let’s take a step back into Old English to see a little more of the word’s development. This line comes from Salomon and Saturn, a series of riddles and verse written in Old English, perhaps during the ninth century and the age of King Alfred.
Ne wyrnaþ deórra dynta
(They do not spare severe blows).
You can see that here the word is dynt, or dynta in this plural form. It tends to be found in the context of fighting and combat. There is a cognate word in Old Norse, dyntr, which also meant ‘blow’ and also ‘kick’. A root has been proposed in Proto-Germanic; *duntiz, meaning ‘blow, strike’. An ultimate link with the source of the Latin word for tooth, dens, is not thought to be the case. The source for *duntiz is thought to be a Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘strike, hit, blow’, and the proposal is *den- (the root for dens is *dent-). However, the Middle Englsh endenten I mentioned previously has given rise to indent in Modern English, so dens has certainly had its part to play outside of direct references to things affecting our teeth.