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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 tetrahedron.]
-Anu Garg (words at wordsmith.org)
"One of the three peregrine falcon chicks nesting atop downtown Seattle's Washington Mutual Bank died early Wednesday. A wildlife expert who spotted the struggling eyas freed it and then transported it to the Woodland Park Zoo." Marc Powell; Ailing Falcon Chick Dies in Seattle; The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington); Jun 30, 1994.
It seems to me that our three basic needs for food and security and love are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. -M.F.K. (Mary Frances Kennedy) Fisher, writer (1908-1992)
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