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Shifting Letters Create Whole 'Nother' Words

Rob Kyff on

In English, what you say is often what you get.

During the 1300s, for instance, a protective cloth worn while cooking was called a "napron." But when people spoke fast (as in, "Put on a napron, Beowulf, and help with the dishes!"), the phrase "a napron" sounded like "an apron." Soon "apron" had completely cut its apron strings to "napron" and was scampering freely around the linguistic kitchen.

This process of shifting one part of a word to another is called "false splitting." Others call it "juncture loss" (a linguistic malady that even Rogaine can't cure?) or "rebracketing," which sounds like the process of tweaking the NCAA basketball tournament.

False splitting also created the dialect word "nother." When people started rendering the word "another" as "a nother," this led to a whole nother word.

Similarly, "umpire" was "noumpere" until the phrase "a noumpere" was misinterpreted as "an oumpere." Soon "umpire" was sticking up its thumb and shouting to its "n," "You're outta here!"

And, drilling deeper, we discover that the hole-boring tool known as "an auger" was originally -- you guessed it -- "a nauger."

No case of false splitting is odder than "adder." Originally, any kind of snake or serpent was called "a nadder." But nattering nabobs pronounced "a nadder" so quickly that it slithered into "an adder."

(Because I'm an inveterate adder, I'll add that "adder" suffered another indignity when it went from meaning any kind of snake or serpent to denoting only specific kinds of snakes. Boo, hiss!)

 

False splitting abounds in other languages as well. "Omelet," for instance, derives from the shift of the "a" in the French phrase "la lemelle" to create "l'alemelle," proving the adage that if you want to make an "omelet," you'll have to break words.

But sometimes false splitting works in reverse, as when the "n" of "an" is added to a word. Until the 1400s, for instance, the word for a descriptive or short name given to a person was "ekename." But when people said "an ekename," the "n" migrated over to "ekename" to create "nekename," which became "nickname."

Likewise, "nonce," meaning "the present occasion or time," comes from the mis-division of the Middle English phrase "then anes." How's that for esoteric "nonce" sense?

The same thing happened to "newt," which was originally "ewt." In fact, for a while during the 1300s, doom-saying ewts roamed the roads of England with signs proclaiming, "The 'n' is near!"

They were right.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. His new book, "Mark My Words," is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2022 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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