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).
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 tanþ-. 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?
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.
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.