How A Napron Became An Apron

How a process called rebracketing changed the English language.

Mignon Fogarty,
Episode #374

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.

Apron image, ericskiff at Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and creator of Grammar Girl, which has been named one of Writer's Digest's 101 best websites for writers multiple times. The Grammar Girl podcast has also won Best Education Podcast multiple times in the Podcast Awards, and Mignon is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame. Mignon is the author of the New York Times best-seller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing" and six other books on writing. She has appeared as a guest on the "Oprah Winfrey Show" and the "Today Show" and has been featured in the New York Times, Business Week, the Washington Post, USA Today, CNN.com, and more. She was previously the chair of media entrepreneurship in the Reynolds School of Journalism in Reno, NV. She hates the phrase "grammar nazi" and loves the word "kerfuffle." She has a B.A. in English from the University of Washington in Seattle and an M.S. in biology from Stanford University. Mignon believes that learning is fun, and the vast rules of grammar are wonderful fodder for lifelong study. 

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