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It seems both dent and dint can mean an impression or hollow in a surface. Is there a reason for the two spellings? Do they have different connotations?

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It's usually dent. I've never heard dint used this way, but here are 108 written instances. The variant I've heard quite often is ding, but that gets less than 40 hits in Google Books. –  FumbleFingers Feb 7 '12 at 0:37
    
Dent: "ORIGIN Middle English (as a noun designating a blow with a weapon): variant of dint." Oxford Dictionary. So there is no difference AFAIK. –  user17857 Feb 7 '12 at 0:37
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What did your on-line dictionary sources say? –  Mitch Feb 7 '12 at 0:41
    
@Mohammad: That doesn’t smell like the OEDthis does: dent n.2: Etymology: < French dent tooth; but sense 1 perhaps originated as an extension of sense 4 of dent n.1, under the influence of the French word, or of indent and its family. 1. An indentation in the edge of anything; in pl. applied both to the incisions and the projections or teeth between them." –  tchrist Feb 7 '12 at 2:15
    
@tchrist: Used this one: "New Oxford American Dictionary 3rd edition © 2010 by Oxford University Press, Inc." –  user17857 Feb 7 '12 at 2:19
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4 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

According to Wiktionary, both dent and dint come from Old English dynt (pre-900), which became Middle English dynt, dent, dunt, and dint. The short vowel sounds denoted by I and E are in free variation in many English dialects, and have been, so far as I know, for most of English history. Before English spelling was fixed, they would have been spelt freely as well, and thence the minor discrepancy.

All these words originally referred to a blow, kick, or strike, and were gradually extended by analogy till they lost that meaning in most dialects. (Dunt is preserved in Scottish.) Both dent and dint now refer to the result of a blow, while dint—as in “by dint of”—also refers to means or force.

Also note that we get indent (and indentation) from a different source: the French endenter, to literally “entooth” something by giving it notches or jags. Dent in all its forms is much older, and could not have been influenced by indent, in case you were curious.

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A dent is a large impression in something, for instance when a car has hit a deer and the bonnet is dented. The car would have a dint in it if it had been hit by a small stone.

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Where I grew up, in Central England, dent and dint were both in common usage. They are just variants in pronunciation -- like scone (/skɒn/) and scone (/skəʊn/) -- but, unlike scone, they are also spelled differently.

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Lovely word, pity it isn't used more often. I've just used it in an article I was translating about cyberspace: "...to maintain total social control that ensures its interests and survival, either through persuasive language or storytelling techniques, as in democracies (subtle totalitarianisms), or by dint of censorship and repression, as in the case of authoritarian governments"

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