The amazing story of how we got the name for arterial stents from a dentist.
A listener named Elizabeth wrote, “Would you please [cover] the proper use of ‘stint' and ‘stent'? I'm so sick of people asking about the three ‘stints’ in one of my arteries that I really believe my head will explode the next time it happens.”
Well, we wouldn’t want that to happen!
When I started doing research, both of these words surprised me.
In my whole life, I’ve only heard “stint” used to mean something like “an assignment” or “a set amount of time,” as in “I did a stint as a sail maker in Seattle, but it didn’t suit me,” or “Little Joey did a three-year stint in the big house.” But “stint” has actually been used in English since the 1300s and has had many other meanings.
It comes from an Old English word that means “to make blunt or dull,” and most of the meanings seem to be somehow related to limits or restrictions. For example, it can be a verb that means “to be frugal or cheap,” as in “Can you pick up groceries on your way home? And don’t stint on the ice cream. I want the good stuff.”
Still, searching both Google Books and the Corpus of Contemporary American English shows that even though throughout the ages it’s had many other meanings, the use I had heard of is vastly more common today, so I’m probably not the only one who thought that was the only meaning. It’s safe to say that today, you use “stint” to describe a bit of time: a stint in rehab, a stint as a driver for a celebrity, or a stint as a visiting professor at Oxford.
"Stent" surprised me in both a similar and a different way. “Stent” has also been an English word since the 1300s, but the Oxford English Dictionary says nearly all its old uses are now obsolete except in Scottish.
The use you’re most likely to encounter today—the type of stent Elizabeth has in her arteries—is named after a person, a 19th-century dentist: Charles Stent! But he is known for inventing improved dentures, so how did the little tubes that keep your arteries open, and really now keep all kinds of tubes in our bodies open, come to be named after him?
Well, an article in the “Journal of the History of Dentistry” says it goes back to plastic surgery during World War I. Apparently, a lot of soldiers got face wounds when they popped up from the trenches to fire on the enemy, so doctors found themselves trying new methods to repair this kind of damage that they hadn’t seen much of before. One Dutch doctor named J.F. Esser wrote about using Dr. Stent’s denture molding material as essentially a base for forming skin grafts (and I’m dramatically simplifying things here). The compound came to be known as “Stent’s mould” and “Stent’s impression compound.” It wasn’t until 1966 that the word “stent” appeared in a cardiovascular journal, and by that time it had come to mean “any kind of nonbiological support used to give shape or form to biological tissue” and that sounds like what arterial stents do, so it makes sense.
First, Stent's mould supported tissue in plastic surgery, and then "stent" came to mean anything that supports or shapes tissue, like the little tubes in Elizabeth's arteries.
When a word gets its name from a person, it’s usually capitalized at first, but then often becomes lowercase as it loses that sense of being associated with that person and takes on more of a common noun meaning, and that’s exactly what happened with the word “stent.” You can find it capitalized in old references, but today, we keep it lowercase.
‘Stent’ and ‘Stenosis’
Finally, an article in the “Mayo Clinic Proceedings” points out that even though the word “stent” comes from a person’s name, it fits exceptionally well for what it does, since the little tube corrects what doctors call a “stenosis,” which comes from a Greek word that means “to narrow.”
“Stenosis” and “stent” aren’t related at all etymologically, but they sure do sound nice together.
‘Stint’ Versus ‘Stent'
The OED says people also confused “stint” and “stent” in the old uses, so this isn’t a new problem. The words just sound a lot alike! But you would do well to not be one of the people who confuses them. Save Elizabeth’s brain!
A Quick and Dirty Tip
Now that you know this story—that the “stent” is named after a person and related to dentures—you can use that word from the story—“dentures”—to remember that the medical device is spelled with an E, just like the word “dentures.” If you aren’t sure of the spelling, think of the dentures!