How a process called rebracketing changed the English language.
Last week my husband excitedly told me he had a “great idea for an app.” I must have been tired because I thought he said he had a “great idea for a nap,” as in sleeping during the daytime. We both ended up laughing, but it also reminded me of a story about how certain words came to be as they are in English.
A Napron Becomes an Apron
The most commonly told story of language changing because of misunderstandings like “an app” is the story of the word “apron.” Originally, it was called a napron (n-a-p-r-o-n). If you go all the way back to Latin, you can trace the roots of “apron” to the word “mappa” which meant both tablecloth and map (1, 2, 3, 4) because if you spread a large map out on a table, it’s a lot like a tablecloth. (1) The French of the Middle Ages took up the word, replaced the “m” with an “n,” and called it a naperon. From there, Middle English dropped the “e” and used “napron.” Then sometime in the 1400s or 1500s, when people said “ a napron,” enough people were mishearing the break between “a” and “napron” that the common phrase became “an apron,” and “napron” fell out of favor and eventually disappeared.
It’s Called Misdivision, Metanalysis, or Rebracketing
This wackiness of mishearings creating new words has a few different names. It’s called misdivision, metanalysis, and rebracketing ([[napron] becomes [an][apron]—the brackets have moved).
A Nadder Becomes an Adder
English got the word “adder” the same way. In Old English, the water snake was called a word that was pronounced something like “nadder” (næddre). In many of the old languages such as Old Irish, Old High German, Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon, and Latin, the word started with an “n.” But again, sometime in the 14th century, the English moved the break between the words and instead of “a nadder” we now talk about “an adder.” (2, 5)
An Otch Becomes a Notch
A similar, but for some reason less commonly told, story applies to the word “notch.” We get it from a rebracketing of “an otch.” The Old French word for “notch” was “oche” (o-c-h-e), from that the English got “otch”—”an otch”—and sometime in the late 1500s, English mishearings made it “a notch.” (6)
A Noumpere Becomes an Umpire
Another less common example is “umpire.” It came to English from an Old French word “nonper,” which means “not peer” or “peerless,” essentially an arbiter of higher status than the participants. Later, it was “a noumpere” which was commonly mistaken to be “an oumpere,” which led to “umpire.” People first used it in a legal sense, and it picked up its sports meaning later. (7, 8, 9)
Let’s move on to some slightly more complicated stories.