Monday, 10 September 2007

Fals esplitting

Here's another post about words. Every day for the past ten years or so, I've received 'a word a day' by e-mail. Each week has a theme and a short explanation. This week's theme is words formed by false splitting (I originally typed fals esplitting - freudian slip!) which, despite the fact I've heard of this before, has a cool explanation:

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.

How cool is that?

For those who are interested, today's word is "eyas", which is a nestling, especially a young falcon or hawk. This results from the erroneous splitting of the original "a nyas" into "an eyas". [From Latinnidus (nest), ultimately from the Indo-European root sed- (to sit) thati s also the source of sit, chair, saddle, soot, sediment, cathedral, andtetrahedron.]

I would also point out that typing has much to answer for in this area (or may do in the future). My erroneous fals esplitting was the result of a too-eager spacebar thumb. Same result!

1 comment:

  1. Here's another problem with splitting words -- hyphenation, and what happens when you hyphenate across the end of a line and then add or remove text and don't notice that the hyphenated word has also moved. I was reading a cricket article one day and it had something about underper-forming, and I wondered what an underper was. Took me a couple of reads to realise that no, it wasn't underper-forming, but under-performing (no hyphen necessary). Bizaarre.