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…