Tuesday, September 11, 2007


I love this entry from Word a Day:

"What's common among an orange and an omelet... and an uncle and an umpire?
Earlier all these words used to take the indefinite article "a", not "an".

They were coined by a process called false splitting. Let's take
orange. The original word was Sanskrit naranga. By the time it reached
English, the initial letter n had joined the article a, resulting in
"an orange". The word for orange is still narangi in Hindi, naranja in
Spanish, and naranj in Arabic.

This false splitting caused what should have been "a napron" to become
"an apron". The same process transformed "a nadder" into "an adder", and
reshaped many other words.

The n went the other way too. "Mine uncle" was interpreted as "my nuncle"
resulting in a synonym nuncle for uncle. The word newt was formed the same
way: "an ewte" misdivided into "a newte".

Could false splitting turn "an apple" into "a napple" or "a nail" into
"an ail" some day? Before the advent of printing, the language was primarily
oral/aural, resulting in mishearing and misinterpreting. Today, spelling
is mostly standardized, so chances of false splitting are slim, though
not impossible.

This week we'll look at a few more examples of words formed by false splitting.

eyas (EYE-uhs) noun

A nestling, especially a young falcon or hawk.

[By erroneous splitting of the original "a nyas" into "an eyas". From Latin
nidus (nest), ultimately from the Indo-European root sed- (to sit) that
is also the source of sit, chair, saddle, soot, sediment, cathedral, and

from Wordsmith

1 comment:

ka said...

Love this.

I have a poem about a word like this coming on in WOMB soon.

It's called "Dord," which is not a word, but the person who was putting together the 1930-something dictionary couldn't understand the notetaker's notes where he had written "D or d for density" (meaning a capital D or lowercase d to signify the word density).

Instead, what he saw was the word "Dord," which he put in the dictionary (Dord (n) definition: density). It was there for a few years before anyone noticed it!

I love those kind of things!