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.
"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."
There’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.
[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.
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.
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