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Etymology gleanings March 2018

Dental problems

One of the questions I received was about dent, indent, and indenture. What do they have in common with dent– “tooth,” as in dental and dentures? Dent, which surfaced in texts in the 13th century, meant “stroke, blow” (a noun; obviously, not a derivative of any Latin word for “tooth”) and has plausibly been explained as a variant of its full synonym or doublet dint. The variation e ~ i was and is still common in English dialects. Today, we use dint only in the phrase by dint of. The word has safe cognates in the Scandinavian languages but nowhere else. Its root may be sound-imitative (mere guessing).

The senses of indent explain the word’s origin. They are: “to make notches resembling teeth; cut into points or jags like a row of teeth; jag; serrate.” Latin indentare already meant, among other things, to indent a document. Indenture referred to a deed made in several copies, all having their edges “indented” (that is why the word so often occurs in the plural). From this legal sense we have the verb indent “engage a servant; contract.” Outside the legal profession, indent is used mainly with reference to starting a line further from the margin, a synonym of justify (a confusing verb; an editor told me about an author who was asked to “justify” in numerous places of his manuscript and gave detailed explanations of his reasoning).

Big bad wolves have big bad teeth and come to no good end. Image credit: Little Red Riding Hood by Jessie Willcox Smith. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In connection with these words, I would like to offer a short illustration of the ways historical phonetics works. Most of us who want to know the origin of words treat the problems more or less as we treat food at a restaurant. If the dish is tasty, we may not be too interested in the cook’s methods. For that reason, I usually try to stay away from “boring” details, but sometimes they are needed. Though here I could have avoided the explanation that follows, perhaps someone will be curious to see how linguists arrive at their results.

Latin dens has the genitive dentis, and only from the genitive do we learn the word’s (and the tooth’s) true root. Thus, we should compare tooth and dent-. By the constantly invoked First Consonant Shift, non-Germanic d becomes t, while non-Germanic t becomes þ (= th). This is exactly what happens in our case: compare dent– and tooth. To be sure, the vowels do not match. Here, light comes from Dutch (tand) and German (Zahn), but the Dutch word is more convenient, because it is closer to the Germanic protoform ta-. The vowel a alternates with e in dent– by ablaut, another indispensable weapon, regularly wielded in this blog. Those who have the ill luck to know the word periodontitis will see the same root in its Greek shape and on one more grade of ablaut (here, o). Mastodon, though the species is extinct, also comes in handy, especially considering how much the word has been used for social purposes. To complete the feast, have a look at the Gothic word for “tooth” (tunþus): one more vowel in the root. This is the stuff on which students of the history of English used to cut their teeth. I said used to, because, at least in the United States, the number of English majors who can perform the operations described above is now close to zero. Nor do many graduate students learn such things. Well, one grade of ablaut is called the zero grade (see tunþus, above), and, as so many people responsible for our curricula say: “The young people need jobs.” Who will cast a stone at them? (This metaphor will occur to some in a different context below.) How many jobs are there requiring the knowledge of the Latin genitive and consonant shifts?

Scythian dentistry at its best. Image credit: Extracting a tooth. Design on a Phoenician vase. CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

A postscript on liver

Two of the recent questions were about liver (see the previous post). One concerned the Slavic words: “Why, in giving the putative Indo-European form, did you ignore the name for ‘liver’ in Slavic?” The Russian for “liver” is pechen’ (stress on the first syllable), and its root is pek- ~ pech’– “(to) bake.” The Ukrainian word is almost the same, but its very similar cognates in Church Slavonic, Polish, and Czech mean “roasted kidneys or liver.” This use reminds us of Leberwurst, mentioned last week. Obviously, pechen’ and its likes are much later names of the organ and were coined to designate the dish. A similar substitution happened in Lithuanian, but not in Latvian, which has a word related to Latin iecur. No word that has come down to us should be understood as particularly old.

As regards the dish, Popular Latin ficatum iecur was a translation loan of the Greek phrase sukōtón épar “goose liver stuffed with figs,” but, curiously, it is the first word that came to designate liver on the plate. Hence Italian fegato and Modern Greek sukōti.

Bedlam and maudlin

The pronunciation and the meaning of both words have been accounted for very well. In Betlem, the Middle English form of Bethlehem, t was voiced before l; hence Bedlem. The name of the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, a lunatic asylum (that is, Bedlem), produced Bedlam, and as early as the 18th century, the sense “a state of uproar and utter confusion” developed.

Magdalene is Latin, but the Middle English form Maudelaine goes back to the pronunciation of the name in Old French.  The name of the college at Oxford retains the bookish (Latin) form in writing and the popular one in pronunciation. Maudlin “tearful” goes back to the images of the weeping Magdalene. Later, the word became a synonym of mawkish. But from early on, the adjective was associated with drunken tears.

This is Titian’s picture The Penitent Magdalene. Image credit: De boetvaardige Maria Magdalena by Titan. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Devil and deviant

The question was whether these words are related. No. Devil is a borrowing from Greek, and deviant is a Romance word. Latin deviare meant “to deviate.” It has the prefix de and the root via “way” (thus, “to turn aside from one’s way”). The proximity, suggested by our correspondent, is due to folk etymology. A similar case of folk etymology is an assumed connection between God and good.

Joy and sorrow                            

The history of joy in English is transparent. The word is from French (Modern French joie). It goes back to the root of Latin gaudea, the plural of gaudium “joy.” Some people may still remember the beginning of the students’ graduation song Gaudeamus igitur “Let us (therefore) rejoice.” The Latin noun has congeners in Classical Greek dialects. The rest is, as in so many other cases, moderately intelligent guesswork. By contrast, sorrow is problematic from the start. It has very close cognates in all the Germanic languages, but outside Germanic, the picture is unclear.  Perhaps Lithuanian sergù “I am ill,” Tocharian B sark “illness,” and Middle Irish serg “illness” are related. No source mentions the Hittite connection, suggested in the reader’s comment on liver.


I think it is proper to finish this post by commenting on the origin of the word chockfull. The word, obviously not from French, surfaced first in Middle English and was rare. Its origin is therefore obscure. Perhaps chock– is related to cheek. In the 17th century, choke-full appeared, with the variant chuck-full (there is the word chuck “chunk”). So we don’t know whether the word suggests choking.

To be continued next week.

Featured image credit: “Oxford England Bicycles Black And White British” by Libraianmari. CC0 via Pixabay

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    I missed this in your last March 21st post! You wrote,

    “If it [Greek phrēn] has a respectable Indo-European past, the word must have begun with ghw-, and no connection with Engl. brain, from Old Engl. brægen, is possible. ”

    I beg to differ. You persist in wanting to insulate English words from their Greek roots. And instead seek some obscure unknown and unrelated Indo-European word as the root cause for both the English and the Greek. But “no connection” otherwise? Really?

    The Old English you fall back on dates to no earlier than the 7th century AD. Before that we have some 400 years of Roman occupation of Britain and use of Latin.

    We know the Romans were greatly influenced by the Greek culture and language. Many Latin words can be traced back to Greek.

    This is only one obvious way that Greek words and ideas were absorbed in English. But also through the French, Celts and Germans.

    The Greek word “phrēn” in fact means “brain”! As evidenced by “phrenology” and “schizophrenia” . All your protestations aside. (BTW, the Greek word for “brakes” is also “phrēna” !).

    The two words (Greek “frēn” and English “brain”) are almost identical. Except for the initial “fr” and “br”. Which can be sounded off with little change physiologically. Try making these double consonant sounds! Hardly do the lips move!


  2. Rudy Troike

    Dear Anatoly,

    You mention at the end of the previous post that “liver” is not related to “live”, and mention another post, but don’t link to one. Have you discussed this previously? Superficially, it seems a very plausible connection.
    On the d / l alternation, this is endemic in West African languages, even between villages. Perhaps Etruscan substratum influence? Or simply a dialectal development? Dialect mixture in the standard language certainly happens (as especially attested in English!).

  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Latvian sirgt (sirgstu) and alternating sērga (ancient for ilness, nowadays more specific disease, replaced by German originated slimība<slims) might also be related to search (sargāt to take care of, keep the treasures e.g., sardze – guard, maybe just a lookalike but meaningwise could be some distant relative to circle).Actually there is a possibiity to go back to verb sērt which apparently changed its meanings and stretched over time. I suppose sēras which differentiated its meaning from small particles of some substance (scurf, flakes,sulphur) to emotional state (sorrow, also sērs – sad, sērot to mourn) as from sērēt-aizsērēt to clog up the stream reflecting unburdened emotional state. Also sērt (pile up ) – sārts (stake) go well with the basic root though slightly different brook.

  4. Constantinos Ragazas


    You are making it too complicated. Often the English roots are simple to find in the Greek. But you need to know Greek like a native speaker.

    To know where to look. But you need to look further than the French or Latin. Since what you have there are more Greek roots.

    Like your sourcing of English “joy” to French. [“The word is from French (Modern French joie)”].

    Before the French and the Latin there was/is Greek. The English “joy” derives ultimately, in my view, from the Greek “zoe” (life). And that should make us all the wiser!

    Further, “dental” comes from the Greek “dontia” (teeth). As with your “periodontitis” (unfortunate choice) and “orthodontal” (better yet). Obvious choices. “Dent”? I don’t think so! Sounds derivative to me.

    The English “devil” indeed derives from the Greek “diavolos”. But do you know the true meaning of “diavolos”? It is made up of Greek “dia” (through) and “volos” (throw).

    Nothing to do with “evil”. Unless you see evil.


  5. Rupert Jonas

    Of course, on its journey to English the ‘n’ seen in ‘dent’ had to fall out of – like a tooth from an unhealthy mouth. Is it too much to ask for a ‘filling’ to make the story complete, perhaps with some examples not listed in the wikipedia article on the Ingvaeonic nasal spirant law?

  6. Peter Maher

    Yes, the liver in Greek is συκώτι, pronounced in modern times as sikóti, but the ancients called the letter υ~ Y “oo”, pronouncing it as the vowel sound of English TOO. Medieval and modern Greeks pronounce it as “EE”. Old words written with the letters called iota, eta, ypsilon, and digraphs epsilon+iota and omicron+iota, all came to be pronounced alike, with the sound of English FEET. Consequently, Byzantine Greeks dubbed Y “plain”, that is to say monographic “i”, as opposed to the five digraphs for writing the EE sound. What’s more, I believe, the liver itself was not stuffed with figs, but rather it was the liver from pigs raised on figs. Lots of devils in these details.

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