Sunday, 26 March 2017


Currently reading Michael Wood's A Story of England. This book accompanied the television series of 2012. The BBC also put together a series of events at museums up and down the country and I was lucky enough to be invited to events at Coventry and Gloucester.

In the earliest part of the book the author speaks of archaeologists uncovering teeth, at which point the etymologist kicked in and I found myself wondering how these ancient ancestors referred to their dentition. Furthermore just when did the modern terminology evolve? And most importantly, why is 'tooth' the singular and 'teeth' plural?

Tooth is of Proto-Germanic origins, similar words are found in Old English, Danish, Swedish, Dutch, Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German, and Gothic. This root (no pun intended) is also the reason why words such as Old English toth saw a plural as teth or tith. The other major source of English words, the Latin group of languages, takes us on to the next in the list .....

Dentist or dentition may be though of as a modern word but these go back to Proto-Indo-European dent, identical to the modern French word for 'tooth' and also giving us Sanskrit danta, Greek odontos, Latin dens, Lithuanian dantis, Old Irish det and Welsh dent and all with exactly the same meaning.

Bicuspid is first seen in 1826, a technical term derived from the Latin bi cuspidem or 'having two parts'.

Canine is not difficult to understand, their very shape is reminiscent to those of the dog and it comes from the Latin caninus or 'pointed tooth'. This is first seen around 1600, while the adjective for a dog has no surviving records prior to 1620 - this is not to say they were not used prior to this but simply no records survive.

Incisor is a Medieval Latin word meaning 'cutting tooth', coming from the Latin incus or 'to cut into'. The same root also gave us 'incision' and 'scissors'.

Molar is from the Latin molaris dens or 'grinding tooth'. This comes ultimately from Proto-Indo-European mel 'to rub, grind' and which is also the source of the word 'mill'.

Wisdom is best defined first in the sense of 'sage, learning, experience'. This Germanic word is a compound of wis, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European weid 'to know', and dom, a Germanic suffix meaning 'judgement' (this the same root as 'doom'). The first reference to 'wisdom teeth' is found in 1848 (prior to this the term was 'teeth of wisdom') and so-called as they erupt around the ages 17 to 25, early adulthood when a person is deemed to be wise.

Cementum is the hard substance covering the root. Clearly this is derived from the same root as 'cement', itself from Latin caementa 'stone chips used for making mortar' and ultimately from caedere 'to cut down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay'.

Crown is obviously from the use of the royal headwear, albeit used as a verb. The word is of Latin origins, where corona originally meant 'wreath, garland'.

Enamel, the hardest part of the tooth, takes its name from the other use where en is a French term preceding esmal, Frankish smalt and Proto-Germanic smaltjan 'to smelt'.

Gum, when referring to the soft tissue of the mouth, comes from a Germanic term meaning 'palate'. Ultimately this shares an origin with Proto-Indo-European gheu 'to yawn'.

Root shares an origin with the underground part of the plant, the dental sense first seen in the late 12th century. The Germanic root of 'root' is wrot and ultimately from wrad, the Proto-Indo-European word which is still found when writing a shopping list for a salad, this being the origin of 'radish', literally 'root-ish'.

Nerve had been used to mean 'sinew, tendon', never used in the modern idea of a conduit for sending impulses to the brain until around 1600. This originates in Proto-Indo-European sneu 'tendon, sinew'.

Incidentally the reason so many teeth are found in comparison to other parts of the skeleton is because they are so resilient. In humans there is the added bonus that teeth, in particular those of children, were not disappearing into the night in the pocket of the tooth-fairy as, quite astonishingly, there is no written record of such before 1964.

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