Etymological dictionary of the words used in the field of dentistry and oral healthcare

(based in part on the online etymology dictionary at:

abrasion (n.)

1650s, act of abrading, from Medieval Latin abrasionem (nominative abrasio) a scraping, noun of action from past-participle stem of Latin abradere to scrape away, shave off, from ab off + radere to scrape.

 abrasive (adj.)

tending to wear or rub off by friction, 1805, from Latin abras-, past participle stem of abradere to scrape away, shave off.

abscess (n.)

From the Latin abscessus, ab+cedere  –  away+go. Aulus Cornelius Celsus, Roman physician (25 BCE-50 CE) coined the term indicating that the “humors are leaving the body through the pus”, a prevalent medical thought inherited from Hippocrates.

alveolus (n.)

From from Latin  – alveolus – a small shallow cavity alveolus. It is the diminutive form of alvus – pouch, belly. The first to name the alveolar socket was Andreas Vesalius, 1543. (Ref. Vesalius, chapter XI, p. 55 and 57)

amalgam (n.)

from the Greek malagma soft, softening substance, Medieval Latin amalgama, alloy of mercury with gold or silver, c. 1300, an alchemists’ word, probably from Arabic al-malgham an emollient unguent for sores. The word amalgama as a dental restorative material is first used in 1528 by Johannes Stockerius.

anatomy (n.)

From the Greek ana- + temnein = up + to cut (dissection), used since 1540.

anesthetic (adj.) 

anesthesia (n.)

producing temporary loss of sensation, 1846, from Latinized form of Greek word for sensless = anaisthetos. Related: anesthetize (v.) – bring under the influence of an anesthetic, 1848.

anterior (adj.)

From Latin anterior – former, ante – before. Used since 1610.

aphta, ae (n)

from the Greek apto – to kindle a fire. First used in the Corpus Hippocraticus 5th c. BCE.

appliance (n.)

from apply + -ance = instrument applied, placed in action for a purpose. First used in 1560s.

artery (n.)

From Greek  arteria  or windpipe. Blood circulation was understood in ancient Greece to occur only in veins, because arteries were empty after death, hence the designation for carrying air. also from Old French artaire or Anglo-French arterie. First used in late 14 century for blood vessels.

attrition (n).

early 15c., a breaking; 1540s, abrasion, scraping, from Latin attritio, attritionem, a rubbing against.


from Greek bio (life) + opsis (sight) termed by French dermatologist Ernest Besnier, 1895. As a verb used since 1964.

bleach (n.)

Late Old English blæce = paleness. Middle English blech = whitening. First used as bleaching agent in 1881.

blood (n.)

Proto-Germanic blodam = blood, from blohto = swell, gush, spurt. Related: blood-letting, from 13c Old English – blood letunge, bloodlæte.

bone (n.)

Old English ban = bone, tusk, from Proto-Germanic bainan (Old Frisian, Old Saxon ben, Old Norse bein, Danish ben, German Bein).

bicuspid (adj.)

1826, having two parts, from bi- two + Latin cuspidem cusp, point, which is of unknown origin. As a noun, short for bicuspid molar, attested from 1837.

bruxism (n.)

grinding one’s teeth from the Greek ebryxa, itself from the word brykein, to gnash one’s teeth.       

buccal (adj.)

From Latin bucca, = cheek, used since 1813. Related words, French bouche.

calcium (n.)

Termed by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1808 when he isolated from limestone (Latin – calx-calcis).

calculus (n.)

the medical term for accumulation of stonelike material such as kidney or other stone, first used from 1732. Originally, calx-calcis, limestone, was the “stone, pebble” used in settling accounts in ancient Greek. Related words: calculator (n), calculate (v.).

cancer (n.)

From the Greek karkinos – crab, tumor, constellation with the same name. In medical terms used since 1600s. The term  karkinoma was used in the  Corpus Hippocraticus of the 5th c BCE.

candida (n.)

from Latin candidus, candida = white, pure, honest. Related: candidate, in Roman times a person aspiring for a position of power was wearing a white toga and was called a “candidate

canine (adj.)

c. 1600, pertaining to one of the four sharp-pointed tearing teeth between the incisors and the molars, from canine (n.) or Latin caninus. Meaning pertaining to a dog or dogs is from 1620s.

caries (n.)

from Latin caries =  decay, Greek ker, kere –  to injur, break apart, death, destruction. First used for dental caries in 1826.

cavity (n.)

a hollow place, empty space in the body, 1540s, from Middle French cavité (13c.), from Late Latin cavita, cavitatem hollowness, from Latin cavus hollow (from PIE root *keue- to swell, vault, hole).

catheter (n.)

From the Greek katheter, derived from kathienai = to send down, (kata= down, + hienai=to send). Also, French cathéter.  Used since c. 1600.

clinic (n.)

1620s, bedridden person, one confined to his bed by sickness, from French clinique (17c.), from Latin clinicus physician that visits patients in their beds, from Greek klinike (techne) (practice) at the sickbed, from klinikos of the bed, from kline bed, couch, that on which one lies, from suffixed form of PIE root *klei- to lean. Related words: recline, client, incline, inclined.

cosmetic (n.)

c. 1600, the art of beautifying, art of anointing or decorating the human body, from Latinized form of Greek kosmetike (tekhnē) the art of dress and ornament, from fem. of kosmetikos skilled in adornment or arrangement, from kosmein to arrange, adorn, from kosmos order; ornament.

cusp (n.)

From the Latin cuspis –  point, spear.

deciduous (n.)

From the Latin deciduus = de+ cadere –  to fall down.

dentin, dentine (n.) 

the bone-like substance in teeth (as distinguished from enamel or pulp), 1836, from combining form of Latin dens (genitive dentis) tooth (from dent- + in ). 

dental (adj.)

Related to teeth, 1590s, from Middle French dental = of teeth or Medieval Latin dentalis, from Latin dens, dentis – tooth.” As: connected to dentistry, term used since 1826. As a noun since 1794. Related words: dentistry

dentifrice (n.)

From the Latin dens (tooth) + fricare (friction), fricentur dentes – brush one’s teeth. First used in the 15th century.

denture (n.)

the provision of teeth in the jaws, especially a set of artificial teeth, 1845, from French denture set of teeth, from Latin dens (genitive dentis, tooth, from root *dent- tooth) + -ure. In Middle English, the word meant an indenture; a zigzag course (c. 1400).

diagnosis (n.)

1680s, medical Latin application of Greek diagnōsis “a discerning, distinguishing,” from stem of diagignōskein “discern, distinguish,” literally “to know thoroughly” or “know apart (from another),” from dia (between) + gignōskein (to learn, to come to know).

emergency (n.)

from Latin emergere = to rise up. Used since 1630. As an adjective since 1881.

enamel (n.)

in ceramics, early 15c, As hardest part of a tooth, 1718, from a use in French émail.

epidemiology (n.)

From the Greek epidemios (among the people) + logos (science). used since 1850.

epithelium (n.)

From the Greek epi- upon and thēlē – nipple. Used since 1748

eruption (n.)

From the Latin eruptionem, eruptio –  to break out. Since the early 15 c.

evidence (n.)

From the Latin evidens = obvious, apparent. Used since c. 1300.

examination (n.)

From the Latin examinationem, examinare =  to weigh, to ponder. To test one’s knowledge used since 1610.

fluorine (n.)

The element fluor was discovered in 1660 was easily fusible and were used as fluxes in smelting, hence coined for its fluidity= fluere,  Latin for “to flow”. Fluorine, the non-metalic element was termed by Sir Humphrey Davy in 1813 because of it was isolated from fluorspar (fluorite) a calcium fluoride salt.

forensic (adj.)

From the Latin forensis  of a place of assembly. Related words: forum – a public place. Used since 1650s.

gingival (adj.)

From the Latin gingivae the gums (of unknown origin) + -al. In use since the 1660s.

gingivitis (n.)

From the Latin gingivae the gums (of unknown origin) + itis – inflammation. In use since 1874.

gum (n.)

From the Old English goma palate, side of the mouth (single or plural), from a Germanic source represented by Old Norse gomi palate, Old High German goumo.

gutta-percha (n.)

From the Malay name of the tree getah percha – gum of percha. Since 1845. The word getach was modified to gutta which in Latin means drops.

halitosis (n.)

From the Latin  halitus –  exhaled air, breath. Bad breath –  halitosis used since 1874.

harelip (n.)

1560s, from hare + lip. So called for resemblance.

health (n.)

From the Old English hælþ -, or hal –  whole, uninjured.

heart (n.)

From the Old English  heorte –  heart. Old spelling circa 1500. In Greek Kardia, Latin – cardia) 

herpes, herpetes (n.)

From the Greek  herpein – to creep, move slowly, herpeton – serpent. Used in the Corpus Hippocraticus, 5th c BCE.

history (n.)

From the Greek histor = wise man, judge; historein = inquire, Greek historia, Latin historia,  French histoire, Old French  estoire, meaning learning by inquiry. Used since late 14c.

hygienist (n.)

1836, “an expert on cleanliness,” from hygfien + ist, word derived from Hygeia, the goddess of good health, daughter of Asclepius, God of medicine. Earlier was hygeist (1716). Dental hygienist mentioned first, in 1913.

immune (adj.)

From the Latin immunis – not taxed, not performing services (in+munis = not + performing service). In health it means exempt from disease. Used since 1917. Related word: municipal, immunize, 

impression (n.)

From the Old French impression, Latin impressio – pressing into. Used since 14c for general terms. In dentistry late 18th century.

incision (n.)

From the Latin in+caedere = into + cut,  – Latin – incidere. Used since late 14th c.

incisor (n.)

From the Medieval Latin incisor, a cutting tooth, literally that which cuts into, from Latin incisus,. In use since 1670s.

infection (n.)

From the Latin inficere – to spoil, French infeccion – contaminate, poison. Used since the late 14th c.

instrument (n.)

From the Latin instrumentum, (in+struere – on+build). Used since the 13th c.

intravenous (adj.)

From the Latin intra+vena (inside the vein), used since 1847.

jaw (n.)

Probably Old French joue – cheek. Used since the late 14c.

laboratory (n.)

From the Latin laboratus, laborare – to work, a place of work. Used from the 1600c.

laser (n.)

Abbreviation of light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation. Introduced in 1960.

lateral (adj.)

From the Latin lateralis, latus, French latéral = the side, flank. Used since the early 15th century.

ligament (n.)

From the Latin ligare,  to tie, ligamentum –  a band. Used from the 14c.

lingual (adj.)

From the Medieval Latin lingualis of the tongue, from Latin lingua tongue, also speech, language, from Old Latin dingua.

lip (n.)

From the Old English lippa lip, one of the two sides of the mouth, from Middle Dutch lippe, Dutch lip, Old High German lefs, German Lefze, Swedish läpp, Danish læbe.

mandible (n.)

From the Latin mandere = to chew

masticate (v.)

From Greek mastax = the mouth, masasthai = to chew, mastikhan =  to gnash the teeth. Used since the late 14th c. Related words: mustache, mastication.

maxilla (n.)

From the Latin term, maxilla, initially reserved for the lower jaw and mala for the upper jaw. First designated in 1670s. Subsequently maxilla superiores and maxilla inferiores,  was used to designate the maxilla and mandible. Subsequently maxilla was retained solely for the upper jaw.

medial (adj.)

From the Latin medialis, medius = in the middle. Used since the 1560s.

medic (n.)

From the Latin medicus physician. Used since 1650. Related words: medicine, paramedic,

mercury (n.)

From the name of the Roman god Mercury who was associated with the silvery metal, one of seven known to ancient Greeks/Romans. There were seven planets, seven metals and seven days all associated: Sun – gold and Sunday, ☉; Moon – silver and Monday, ☽; Mars – iron and Tuesday, ♂︎ (mardi in Fr.); Mercury – mercury – Wednesday, ☿ (mercredi, in Fr.); Jupiter – tin – Thursday, ♃ (jeudi in Fr.); Venus – copper – Friday, ♀︎ (vendredi in Fr.); Saturn – lead – Saturday, ♄.

The chemical element of mercury has its symbol Hg from the Greek hydrargiros – from hydros and argirum water (liquid) silver.

mirror (n.)

From the Latin mirare – to wonder, look at, watch. The Old French mireoir, mirour.  Dental mirror was termed  speculum oris, first described in Jacques Guillemeau – Ouevres de chirurgie, 1598.

molar (n.)

From the Latin molaris dens grinding tooth, from mola millstone, to crush, grind. Used since 1620s.

motor (n.)

From the Latin movere, motor = to move. Used since mid 15th c.

mouth (n.) 

From the Old English muþ, oral opening of an animal or human; opening of anything, door, gate, from Old Frisian muth, Old Norse munnr, Danish mund, Middle Dutch mont, Dutch mond, Old High German mund, German Mund, Gothic munþs mouth). As the oral cavity, mouth is used from 1660s.

mouth-wash (n.)

Therapeutic wash for the mouth used since 1801.

mucous (adj.)

From the Latin mucosus, mucus, slimy, mucous, used since 1640s.

muscle (n.)

From the Latin musculus = little mouse, of which some muscle when contracted looked like. Used since the late 14th c.

necrosis (n.)

From the Greek nekroun –  nekros – dead body.

occipital (bone, n.)

From the Latin occiput, occipitis – back of the skulls, (ob +caput) . Used since 1758.

oral (adj.)

From the Greek os, oris = mouth, opening, entrance. Used from 1620.

pain (n.)

From the the Greek poine –  retribution, penalty; Latin  poena –  punishment, penalty, Old French paine –  suffering, punishment, agony (suffered by Christ). Used since the 13th c. Related context: “be annoying, give someone a pain – used since 1895, “a pain in the neck” since 1924, “pain in the ass” since 1934.

palate (n.)

From the Latin palatum, roof of the mouth, also a vault. It was thought to be the seat of the sense of taste, hence the altered meaning for gustation, “having a good palate”.

pariteal (bone) (n.)

From the Latin paries, parietis –  wall, the side of the skull. Used from the early 15c.

parotid (n.)

From the Greek parotis = par+ot+ous – tumor+near the+ear. Used c. since 1200.

patient (n.)

From the Greek pathos – suffering or sick person under medical treatment, late 14c., from from Latin patior (suffer, allow, endure, tolerate, submit), from Old French pacient (n.), from the adjective, from Latin patientem.  Related word: pathology – pathos + logos –  suffering+ study. 

patient (adj.)

From the Latin patientem and Old French pacient,  bearing, supporting, suffering, enduring without complaint. Used since late 14c. Related words: patience, outpatient, used since1715.

periodontal (adj.) 

From the Latin peri-(around) + dent (tooth in Latin) or odon, odontos (tooth in Greek). First used in 1848.

phosphorous (n.)

From the Greek and Latin phosphorous = light bringing, morning star. (Greek phaos – light + phoros, pherein,  bearer or carry). Term used since 1680. Isolated from urine by Henning Brand in 1669.

physician (n.)

From the Latin physica – natural sciences, Old French – fisique – art of healing, Old French fisiciien – physician, doctor, a healer. Used since the early 13th c.

plaque (n.)

From the German placken – spot, patch. In the context of dental plaque used since 1898.

porcelain (n.)

From the Italian porcellana  = sea snail (cowrie) shell, and the Middle-French porcelaine. First used as a term in 1530 for chinaware imported from China. Although known from ancient China, porcelain was rediscovered in 1708 by Johann Friedrich Böttger. 

posterior (adj.)

From the Latin posterior = later, after, posterus- coming after. Used since 1630s.

prevent (v.)

From the Latin pre- (before)+ venire (come). First used in 1540. Related: preventive. First used in 1650 and as a noun from 1774.

prosthesis (n.)

From the Greek prosthesis addition, from prostithenai add to. Making artificial body parts first recorded in 1706. Prothèse (French) in dental context used since 1843, Desirabode, Malagou-Antoine.

pulmonary (adj.)

From the Greek pleumon – floater, lung.  Pleu  – to flow.  Pulmo, Pulmonis, Pulmonaris  – lung, related to lung. Since 1704, the French used pulmonaire derived from the Latin pulmonarius.

resorb (v.)

From the French  resorbe-, Latin resorbere: re+sorbere – to suck back. Used since 1630.

sagittal (adj.)

From the Latin sagitta – arrow, sagittal – like an arrow. Used from the 1540s.

saliva (n.)

From the Latin  saliva –  spittle. Used since early 15c.

stomatology (n.)

From the Greek stoma  – mouth and logos –  science, study. Since 1859. Related words, stomatitis, stomatologist.

surgery (n.)

From the Old French surgerie, surgeure, serurgerie, Late Latin chirurgia derived from the Greek kheirourgos = hand (kheir) + work (ergon), work done with hands. First used c. 1300.

symptom (n.)

From the Greek: symptoma and Latin sinthoma = happening, accident, coincide, or fall together  (fall (syn) + together (piptein)

syringe (n.)

From the Greek and Late Latin syringa derived from syrinx = hollow tube, channel, shepherd’s pipe. Used from early 15th c.

temporal (bone) (n.)

From the Latin temporalis –  of time (where the passage of time is noticed as one grows older and the hair grays.

tooth (n.)

From the Old English toð, related to Old Saxon, Danish, Swedish, Dutch tand, Old Norse tönn, Old Frisian toth, Old High German zand, German Zahn, Gothic tunþus. Used as a medical term since 1540. 

Related words: 

tooth-brush (n.)  first use 1650s.

toothache (n.) Old English toðece from (tooth + ache): from tooth+ ache (v.) Old English acan = suffer continued pain.

tooth-paste (n.) from tooth + paste (n.) used since 1832. Earlier substances were tooth-powder (c. 1540s) and tooth-soap (c. 1600).

tooth-pick (n.) from the Old English toðsticca, use since late 15th century.

tongue (n.)

Old English tunge tongue, organ of speech; related to Old Saxon and Old Norse tunga, Old Frisian tunge, Middle Dutch tonghe, Dutch tong, Old High German zunga, German Zunge, Gothic tuggo.

treat (v.)

From the Old French traitier  = to deal with, negotiate (first used in 12 c.), from Latin tractare = to manage, handle, deal with. Related: treatment first used in medical sense in 1770.

ulcer (n.)

From the Latin ulcerem, ulcus, ulcere, (sore, painful), also wound, sore from Greek elkos. First used c. 1400.

vein (n.)

From the Old French veine, Latin vena for blood vessel. First used in the 14 century.

veneer (n.)

From the German furnieren – to cover with a veneer. From the French fournir –  to furnish. Provide an outward appearance of good quality.

vitamin (n.)

From the combination of vita (Latin for life) + amine (though to always include amino acids when Casimir Funk, a Polish biochemist discovered it in 1920).

white (n.)

From the Old English – hwit – white. Used since c.1400.

wax (n.)

From the Old English  weax – made by the bees, Old High German  wahs, Old Norse  vax, German  wachs.


wisdom (n): Old English wisdom knowledge, learning, experience, because wisdom is achieved after age 18. Related to Old Frisian wisdom, Old Norse visdomr, Old High German wistuomWisdom teeth called from 1848 (In 1660s were called dentes sapientiae (Latin), from translation of Greek sophronisteres.  Related use by Hippocrates, sophron = prudent, self-controlled.

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