How A Napron Became An Apron

How a process called rebracketing changed the English language.

Mignon Fogarty
9-minute read
Episode #374

There's a Nap for ThatThere’s a Nap for That

Going back to my original story about wanting a nap instead of an app, one of my Twitter followers showed me that a bunch of online stores have baby clothes that there “There’s a nap for that,” so I’m certainly not the first person to think an app sounds a lot like a nap.

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[Content below this point did not appear in the accompanying Grammar Girl podcast.]

Another example of simple rebracketing I didn’t include in the podcast because it’s not a commonly used word is “auger,” which comes from “a nauger.”

Did “Twit” Come From “At Wit”?

“Twit” is believed to have come from lopping off the beginning of the word “atwite,” which came from an Old English word that meant “to blame or reproach.” (Truncating the first part of a word is technically known as aphesis.) However, it may have also been influenced by the word “nitwit.” (16, 17)

Did “Nugget” Come From “Ingot”?

A book published in 1900 claims that the word “nugget” comes from “an ingot” being interpreted as “a ningot” and then “a nugget.” (18)

However, more modern sources only list this theory as an alternative to the seemingly more accepted story that “nug” was a term for “lump” in southwestern England dialect in the 1800s (or don’t list it at all). (19)

“Ingot” itself, however, may have arisen from a mistaken division. In Middle French, an ingot of metal was called a lingot. People may have mistaken the “l” to mean “the” and interpreted it as “l’ingot.” (An ingot is a piece of material, usually metal, that has been formed into a convenient shape for shipping or reprocessing, such as a brick.) (20)

"Then Anes" Became "the Nonce"

“Nonce” means “once,” and a nonce word is a word that is created for a special purpose, possibly only to be used once.

The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories says that there was a Middle English expression “then anes” which meant “for the one purpose,” and it is a rebracketing of “then anes” to “the nanes” that eventually leads us to the word “nonce.” (21)

“That Other” Became “the Tother”

“Tother” isn’t used in most Standard English conversations, but it is used in slang and dialect, and the word comes from rebracketing “that other” to “the tother” that goes as far back as the 13th century. (22, 23)

“A Nag” Probably Did Not Come from “an Og”

I found one source saying that English got “a nag” from rebracketing of the Danish “an ög,” (24) but no dictionary etymology section backed up the claim.

Although the origin is uncertain, dictionaries say it may come from the Dutch “negge,” which means “small horse” or Swedish “nagga,” which means “to gnaw.” (25, 26)

“La Lemelle” Became “Omelette”

In 17th century France, an omelet was called “la lemelle,” which people who study word histories believe was mistakenly transformed to l’alemelle. From there, it was shortened to “alemelle” and “alemette,” and eventually became “omelette.” (27, 28)

Next: What weird rebracketings annoyed people in the 1800s.


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.