After 47 years, it has become apparent that I have malocclusion—irregular contact of opposing teeth in the upper and lower jaws when I close my mouth. Known colloquially as bad bite, the term malocclusion itself was invented around 1885-1890, when the science of modern dentistry was evolving. According to about.com, the first orthodontic classification system—detailed descriptions of crooked teeth that would aid in figuring out how to straighten them—was invented by Edward H. Angle (1855-1930). Angle started the first school of orthodontics in 1901.
Although my teeth have always looked fine, my malocclusion has revealed itself recently. Over the last couple of years, my dentist¹ has had to make three small repairs in quick succession in the same area of my top front teeth. By now you may be able to guess what I’m going to say: braces.
I’ve had my adult teeth for over 40 years, or about 15,000 days. You don’t have to be a math whiz to calculate that if chewing and talking creates uneven wear each day of only, say, 1/100,000th of a millimeter in a specific spot, 40 years adds up to a bit of a problem. After consulting with my dentist and doing a bunch of research, I decided to go with Invisalign, the clear, tray-shaped braces that clip tightly onto the teeth and are remove only for meals. In about a year or so, I hope to have benocclusion (not a word—yet).
“Malocclusion” was formed by the “bad” prefix that we see in many English words—malignant, malfunction, malevolent, and so forth—and “occlusion,” which means closure. “Occlusion” is the noun form of the verb “occlude” (Latin occludere) which means to close up.
Previous to that in the etymological history is where it gets interesting for me. “Oc,” appearing before the letter “c” here, turns out to be a variant of the “ob” prefix (obsolete, obstinate, etc.). Linguists call this assimilation, where two sounds near each other that once were different become alike, or at least more alike. “Oc” combines with cludere, a variant of the Latin verb claudere, “to close.”
And that’s how I found out that “occlusion” is related to “claustrophobia,” the fear of enclosed spaces, “claustrum,” a barrier (anatomical term), and “cloister,” a convent or monastery, and even the word “close” itself!²
Here are other English words formed with the –clude root. Think of how each one literally or figuratively closes something in, out, or up:
reclusive (reclude, rarely used)
Did I miss any?
¹The most fabulous dentist in the world, Dr. Lyly Fisher
²See the lengthy etymology at dictionary.com