Where does the word “indent” (indenture) come from and What does indent mean?

To prevent the likelihood of alteration in deeds and other contracts between two parties, a certain practice was introduced into the England of the late Middle Ages.

The contract was written out in duplicate upon a sheet of parchment or paper, with a blank strip between, and then the two documents were cut or torn apart in such manner as to leave a notched or wavy edge.

At any time thereafter the genuineness of either document could be proved by matching the cut edge with that of the other. One was said to indent the contract, from Latin in, in, and dens, tooth. The contract itself was, and still is, called an indenture, from that original means of identification.

It was this form of contract that existed between an apprentice or a servant and his master; the apprentice or servant “took up his indenture” when he had completed his service. Thus, many of the early settlers of the American colonies, lacking the money for their transportation, voluntarily became “indentured servants” in order to get to America.

Usually after seven years such a servant was table to “take up his indenture” from the master who had bought it from the ship owner. (Compare KIDNAP.)