How A Napron Became An Apron

How a process called rebracketing changed the English language.

Mignon Fogarty
9-minute read
Episode #374

"Orange" Doesn’t Quite Come from "a Norange"

You may have heard that the word “orange” comes from “norange,” but it’s not quite true.
Oranges originally grew in Southeast Asia and were imported to England sometime in the 14th century. The Hindi name for the fruit was “narangi.”

Oranges didn’t come to England directly from Southeast Asia though. They probably arrived first in places such as Italy (where the name became “narencia”) and Spain (where the name became “naranja,” which is what it is still called in Spanish today). It appears that it was in France that the poor orange lost its “n,” because, of course, rebracketing isn’t a phenomenon that only occurs in English.  In Old French, the fruit was called “pomme d’orenge,” and it was from here that it entered English and became simply an orange. (3, 10, 11)

An Ekename Becomes a Nickname

Mishearings and rebracketing don’t happen in just one direction either. In all the examples I’ve given you so far, words have lost their “n,” but there are also examples of words that have gained an “n.”

“Nickname” for example was originally “an ekename,” which makes a lot more sense when you realize that in Old English, “eke” meant “also” or “addition,” so your ekename (your nickname) was your additional name. (2, 3, 11)

An Ewt Becomes a Newt but Also Keeps Its Original Form

We get the word “newt” the same way. It was originally “an ewt.” Actually, way back in Old English it was “efete,” and then in Middle English it became “ewt.” (3, 11) The interesting thing about this transformation is that it wasn’t complete. There’s a North American newt that is called the red eft that in some sense preserves the original pronunciation. (8, 12)

Mine Ann Becomes Nan

Although confusion about “a” or “an” usually seems to be the cause of rebracketing, it’s not always the case. It’s believed that we get the names Nan, Ned, and Nell from mistaking “mine Ann,” “mine Ed,” and “mine Ellen” for “my Nan,” “my Ned,” and “my Nell.” (13)

"El Lagarto" Becomes "Alligator"

We get the word “alligator” not by moving the break between words but by eliminating it altogether (sometimes called “juncture loss”). In 13th century Spanish, what we now call an alligator was “el lagarto”: the lizard. It became “alligator” when people ignored the break between the two words and blended it into one. “El lagarto” blends and slurs into “alligator.” (14, 15)

Next: Why "twit" may or may not have come from "at wit" and "nugget" may or may not have come from "ingot."


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show.