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a mouthful

A visit to the dentist this week caused us to ponder the ancestry of the word tooth. Surprising as it may seem, it is a cousin of dental, dentist, indent and dandelion. The source of all these words is the Indo-European root word *dent-, "tooth", which ultimately derives from another root - *ed-, meaning "to bite", ancestor of our eat. In some languages  pronunciation of*dent- drifted through *dont- to the ancient Germanic *tanthuz.  The Anglo-Saxons dropped the N giving us the Old English toth which we now write as tooth. Another Germanic derivative of *dent- was *tunth-sk- which in Old English became tusc, "a canine tooth" and ancestor of tusk.

To indent originally meant "to make tooth-like shapes along an edge", and this primary meaning soon developed into a very specific meaning. In medieval times when contractsIndenture granting the tenements in 'Lurteburghe Lane' (Free School Lane) to John Colton of Terrington, the 'warden' [Master] and Scholars of Gonville Hall, to be the home of their College, 4th June 1349. were drawn up between two parties, both copies of the contract would be written on one sheet of parchment. The halves were then separated with a jagged edge so that if it subsequently became necessary to validate the authenticity of a copy one would merely have to align the indentations. Eventually, indentured came to mean "bound by a contract", hence the term indentured servant.  To this day, an apprentice takes up indentures with a master.

The root word *dent- is clearly seen in French dent, "tooth", but it is not so apparent Dandelion- the 100% useful weedin dandelion. This familiar weed takes its name from deep serrations in its leaves which, to some, looked like a lion's tooth - dent de lion in French.

Of course, trident means a spear with three points or "teeth" but what about the Tridentine mass formerly celebrated by Roman Catholics - does that have three teeth, too? Well, not exactly. It was adopted in the northern Italian town of Trento (Tridentum, in Latin) which was named for the three peaks of a nearby mountain.

Also derived from *ed-, and closely related to *dent-, was another Indo-European root: *denk- which meant "to bite". From this came the Old English toh, "tenacious, sticky" and tang, "pincers", hence our words tough and tongs. Hmmm... tough and tongs... sounds like we're back at the dentist's already.

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Last Updated 08/23/02 09:45 PM