Dental Floss

By Kathy Ewing

As a Latin teacher who has spent an inordinate amount of time in the dentist’s chair, I’ve found a peculiar way to distract myself from the shrill whine of the drill: I listen closely to my dentist’s use of Latinate terms. A recent visit provided a veritable cornucopia.

Many people know that medical terms often derive from Latin and Greek. They may also know that “dentist” comes from the Latin word for “tooth.” They may not know, however, that the root of “patient” is the Latin word for “suffering,” which accurately describes my reaction to the root canal I was enduring. They also may not know that the apex, Latin for “top” or “summit,” is the very tip of the tooth’s root, When my dentist used “apico-“ as a prefix, I recognized it as the stem of the word “apex.” And because I know that the Greek “-ectomy,” means “removal,” I sadly gleaned what an “apicoectomy” was, closed my eyes, and tried to relax. It was a root canal extraordinaire.

More routine procedures elicit terms less obscure and less threatening. When my dentist refers to my “tori,” I always want to tell him it means “beds” or “mounds” in Latin. Someday, he’ll take his fingers out of my mouth long enough for me to explain.

Tori, of which I have an abundance, are bony protuberances on the roof of the mouth or the inside of the lower jaw. Those stiff cardboard x-rays poke these bumps painfully. I wish I had only a singular torus (just as one desert tree is a “cactus”).

Another way of putting it is that the tori usually occur on the lingual side of the mandibular jaw. Ha! Lots of Latin! “Lingua” is the tongue, so “lingual” is on the inside, or the tongue side of the teeth. In Latin, by the way, “lingua” can also mean “language,” just as “tongue” can mean “language” in English (as in “mother tongue”). I always tell my students that “tongue” preserves the ancient “u” in “lingua,” hoping to prevent them from writing “tounge,” which many of them are wont to do.

“Mandibular” refers to the lower jaw. It derives from the Latin verb “mandere,” meaning “to chew,” which is also the root of the fancy word “mastication,” for “chewing.”

The upper jaw is the “maxilla,” which I thought had something to do with “greatest,” because “maximus” means “greatest,” but I was wrong. In fact, it’s the opposite of greatest; it’s a diminutive of “mala,” the word describing entire jaw. A diminutive is a word variation, often a suffix, which makes something little or cute. For example, in English, the manly drum major contrasts with adorable little majorettes. The book War and Peace is not to be confused with a booklet. Drops of rain, as the storm dies down, turn into droplets. In Latin, the “-illa” suffix makes “maxilla” a diminutive.

Another Latin diminutive is the suffix “-ulum.” So, the “frenum,” the connective tissue on the underside of the tongue, is the Latin word for “bridle” or “rein.” Its diminutive form, “frenulum,” denotes a part of the male body where dentists never venture. In Latin, these words mean “bridle” and “little bridle,” respectively, because they hold back or control other tissue.

As the hygienist scrapes off dental plaque, the sufferer might ponder its Latin name, “calculus.” I’ll give you a minute to figure out what your teeth’s calculus has to do with your high-school calculus. My husband’s guess was that they are both hard, and he was right, but not in the way he meant.

In Latin, a “calculus” is a small pebble. If you’ve been paying attention, you might be noticing the “-ulus,” which makes the word a diminutive of “calx,” which means “stone.” Pebbles served as primitive Roman computers, used to keep track of how many, say, togae you owned. Those pebbles formed the counters on the ancient abacus. Romans used calculi to calculate, in other words. This is where we get “calculation” and the branch of mathematics called “calculus.”

Your minute’s up. Do you see the connection? Calculus is the hard substance, like a pebble, that accumulates on your teeth when you haven’t been using your electric toothbrush.

Now may or may not be an appropriate time to mention that the Romans brushed their teeth with urine. It’s pure and acidic, after all.

Perhaps you’ve been brushing conscientiously (with a modern commercial product, no doubt), but have been neglecting your flossing. “Floss” seems like a straightforward Anglo-Saxon word, because it’s one syllable and doesn’t look Latin. But non est verum. “Floss” derives from “floccus,” Latin for a tuft of wool, by way of the French “floc.” So both words in this essay’s title, dental floss, derive from Latin.

You’re ready now for a final exam. Explain the roots and meaning of this lengthy Latinate term for a lengthy dental procedure: “recalcificationapexification.”

Well, a radical root canal such as mine (redundant, because “radical” literally means “root”) delves into the root of your tooth to its tip, and the dentist restores a calcium compound, i.e., a hard bony substance, to the apex. Impress your dentist with this word, all twelve syllables, on your next visit, if, that is, he or she gives you a chance to speak.