Wednesday, October 17, 2007

False Splitting

Now this I find interesting, as someone who has a fondess for words, their meaning, and their origins. I swipe it verbatim from the September 9, 2007, edition of A Word a Day, of which I've written before and will again:

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.

Cool, no? Here are a few samples that interested me, from the week's worth of "false splits" that AWAD presented:

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 tetrahedron.]

atomy (AT-uh-mee) noun
A skeleton. [From the word anatomy taken as "an atomy". From Latin ana- (up) + tome (a cutting). Ultimately from the Indo-European root tem- (to cut) that is alto the source of tonsure, temple, epitome, and contemplate.]

auger (AW-guhr) noun
Any of various boring tools resembling a corkscrew, used in carpentry, digging, etc.
[From the misdivision of "a nauger" as "an auger". Ultimately from the Indo-European root nobh- (navel) that is also the source of nave, navel, umbilical, omphaloskepsis (navel gazing), and Hindi nabhi (navel).]

nonce (nons) noun
1. The present or immediate occasion.
2. The time being.
[From the phrase "for the nonce", a misdivision of "for then anes", from for + then (the) + anes (one).]

If you find this sort of thing the slightest bit interesting, you really should sign up for A Word a Day. Of course, if you find this sort of thing the slightest bit interesting, you probably already have.

No comments: