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Q From John Branch: A search of your site shows four uses of the phrase by dint of but no entry on it. It seems to have become a fixed expression. Is there a good tale in the history of dint?

A I hope you’ll find it so.

Dint belongs to another of those sets of words that I wrote about last week, whose members are linked by shifts in an internal vowel. In this case, dint belongs with dent and dunt.

Dint is by far the oldest of the three, being recorded from the ninth century in Old English. The original meaning was of a blow, especially one with a weapon during warfare. The other spellings appeared in Middle English, largely as a result of dialectal or regional pronunciations; dunt was probably in part created by imitation of the dull sound of such a blow.

Dint and dent are both still around as alternatives, while dunt is now restricted in Scotland and retains its sense of a blow. In more recent centuries, the main sense of the other two has been of a depression in a surface, perhaps one caused by a mishap. This is a natural enough shift in sense through the word coming to mean the result of a blow rather than the blow itself.

Another factor was the arrival in English of the verb indent. This is a quite separate word, from the Latin verb dentare, to furnish with teeth. The first sense of indent in English was to make a serrated tooth-like series of incisions. This led to indenture, whose name came from the practice of producing two copies of an agreement on a single sheet of parchment or paper and separating them by cutting along a jagged path; this made it obvious that the two halves were part of a single document (people would talk of a pair of indentures).

Under the influence of indent, the dint spelling progressively lost out to dent. In addition, the senses of dent and indent began to influence each other.

One result has been that the verb indent is a doublet, one member being from the Latin verb, the other from dent with the prefix in- attached. Because both involve making changes to the shape of something, the two verbs have become mixed up in people’s minds and are frequently thought of as different senses of the same verb. This is especially true of their compound indentation, which can mean tooth-shaped notches, recesses (as in a coastline or paragraphs of prose) and dents (or dints) in a surface.

Back to by dint of. In medieval times, dint came to mean not just a single blow but an attack or assault. As a result, Englishmen spoke of overcoming an enemy by dint of sword, that is, by force of arms. This eventually led to the phrase by dint of, meaning “by force of”. Over time this has weakened to mean little more than “by means of”, but it still often has associations with vigour or perseverance.

Apprenticed as a gardener, he rose through the ranks by dint of hard work, discretion, honesty and yet more hard work.

Guardian, 26 Mar. 2011.

These idioms became established long enough ago that they weren’t affected by the shift to the dent spelling.

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