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How A Napron Became An Apron

How a process called rebracketing changed the English language.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
July 4, 2013
Episode #374

Page 4 of 4

Rebracketings That Annoyed People in the 1800s

In a book of “provincial words” spoken in Herefordshire, England, published in 1839, John Murray complains about “illiterate persons” who used the word “atomy” to mean “skeleton” because they broke “anatomy” into two words: “an atomy.”

He identifies other “corruptions” as “a nawl” for “an awl,” being adept as being “a dab,” mistaking “a nide of pheasants” as “an eye of pheasants,” and turning “an abettor” into “a butty.” (29)

How Do These Changes Happen?

An important point to remember when thinking about these changes is that when many of them happened—in the Middle Ages—most people didn’t read. Instead of seeing the words written on the page, they only heard words spoken. People couldn’t see how the words were supposed to be divided, which made it much easier for mishearings to propagate.

Today, some people may mistakenly think “prima donna” is spelled “pre-Madonna,” but a mistake like this is much less likely to make it into Standard English than it would have been hundreds of years ago.

References


1. Barber, K. Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs: And Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language. Penguin Group. 2006.
2. Castillo, A. Folk Etymology as a Linguistic Phenomenon: Seminar Paper. Druck and Bindung: Books on Demand GmbH, Norderstedt Germany. 2007. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
3. McWhorter, J.H. The Power of Babel. 2001. Times Books. p. 28-9. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
4. Harper, D. "apron." Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/apron (accessed July 3, 2013).
5. Harper, D. “adder.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/adder?s=t (accessed July 3, 2013).
6. Harper, D. "notch." Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/notch?s=t (accessed July 3, 2013).
7. Harper, D. "umpire." Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/umpire?s=t (accessed July 3, 2013).
8. Funk, C.E., Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins. 1950. Harper & Row. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
9. “noumpere,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition. 2003. Oxford University Press. Online Edition (accessed July 3, 2013).
10. Martin, G. “A Norange.” The Phrase Finder. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/a-norange.html (accessed July 3, 2013).
11.  “orange,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition. 2003. Oxford University Press. Online Edition (accessed July 3, 2013).
12. “nickname.” The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. 1991. Merriam-Webster, Inc. p. 319. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
13. Bryson, B. The Mother Tongue. 1990. HarperCollins. p. 63 Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
14. Harper, D. “alligator.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/alligator?s=t (accessed July 3, 2013).
15. “alligator.” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition. 2003. Oxford University Press. Online Edition (accessed July 3, 2013).
16. Dalgleish, W.S. Higher-grade English: History of the Language: Analysis, Style, Prosody. Thomas Nelson and Sons. 1907. p.68. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
17. Harper, D.  "twit." Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/twit (accessed July 3, 2013).
18. Nesfield, J.C. English Grammar Past and Present. Macmillan & Co., Limited:London. 1900. p. 29. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
19. Harper, D. “nugget.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nugget?s=t (accessed July 3, 2013).
20. “ingot.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ingot (accessed July 3, 2013).
21. “nickname.” The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. 1991. Merriam-Webster, Inc. p. 319. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
22. Sturtevant, E.H. Linguistic Change: An Introduction to the Historical Study of Language. University of Chicago Press. 1917. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
23. “tother.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Merriam-Webster, Inc. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tother (accessed July 3, 2013).
24. Dalgleish, W.S.  Higher-grade English: History of the Language : Analysis, Style, Prosody. Thomas Nelson and Sons. 1907. p.68. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
25. Harper, D. “nag.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nag?s=t (accessed July 3, 2013).
26. “nag.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/nag (accessed: July 03, 2013).
27. Harper, D. “omelette.” Online Etymology Dictionary. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/omelette?s=t (accessed July 3, 2013).
28. “omelette.” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition. March 2004. http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/131187? (accessed July 3, 2013).
29. Murray, J. A glossary of provincial words used in Herefordshire and some of the surrounding Communities. William Clowes and Sons: London. 1839. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).
 

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