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What is it called when English speakers, over a long period of time, start adding the letter "n" to the beginning of a word by accident, due to use of the article "an"? For instance, I read somewhere that the word "newt" came from people mistaking "an ewt" for "a newt". I remember there is a term for it, but it's not coming to me.

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A "gingrichism?" – Elian Apr 26 '14 at 22:07
up vote 14 down vote accepted

It’s called metanalysis or rebracketing, amongst many other things:

Rebracketing (also known as juncture loss, junctural metanalysis, false splitting, false separation, faulty separation, misdivision, or refactorization) is a process in historical linguistics where a word originally derived from one source is broken down or bracketed into a different set of factors. It is a form of folk etymology, where the new factors may appear meaningful (e.g., hamburger taken to mean a burger with ham), or may seem to be the result of valid morphological processes.

There are many famous examples of this in English. The rebracketing can go either way, making longer words:

  • an ewte > a newt
  • an eke name > a nickname
  • an uncle > a nuncle

Or shorter ones:

  • a napperon > an apron
  • a nadder > an adder
  • a nought > an ought

Even orange may be one such, although if so, this happened before it reached English. Note the last part in the OED etymology for orange in English and others:

Etymology: ME. orenge, orange, a. OFr. orenge (13th c.), orange, = Ital. narancia (Florio), now arancia (Venet. naranza, Milan. naranz), Sp.naranja, Pg. laranja, also med. Gr. νεράντζιον.

The Sp. and Gr. are ad. Arabic nāranj, in Pers. nārang, nāring: cf. late Skr. nāraṅga, Hindī nārangī; also Pers. nār pomegranate.

The native country of the orange appears to have been the northern frontier of India, where wild oranges are still found, and the name may have originated there.

The loss of initial n in Fr., Eng.,and Ital. is usually ascribed to its absorption in the indef. article in une narange, una narancia. Med.L. had also the forms arangia, arantia (Du Cange), whence aurantia by popular association with aurum gold, from the colour. So perh. OFr. orenge for arange, after or gold.

They aren’t quite sure of that one, though. But it does seem likely.

This process is of course still going on every day, and it may eventually lead to new words, or at least new spellings. Think of the catch-phrase “Texas: it’s a whole nother country”, where another is rebracketed as a nother thereby allowing the insertion of whole between the article and what follows.

This can occur at the phrase level, too. Linguist John McWhorter has an amusing example of “Gladly, the cross-eyed bear” being heard in the hymn line “Gladly the cross I’d bear”. That’s essentially the same process that leads to hilarious (or confusing) eggcorns appearing in print, like “for all intensive purposes” or “when all is set and done”.

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I believe nuncle actually goes the other way - "mine uncle" became "my nuncle". – MT_Head Apr 26 '14 at 22:18
Also, until this question, I'd never made the connection between an eft and a newt - but they're basically the same word. Hmmm. – MT_Head Apr 26 '14 at 22:19
@MT_Head Yes, you’re right. I had it switched. – tchrist Apr 26 '14 at 22:24
Ought is also not really the same thing—at least not unless an original ‘ought’ was lost at some stage. ‘Nought’ is from ne ā wiht ‘not ever a whit’, and the negating ne was detachable originally; in the non-negated form, it was just ā wiht > ought. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 26 '14 at 22:24
@tchrist - It's well-known that amphibians are decadent: effete, in other words. Also that they're bad dancers: they have four left effete. – MT_Head Apr 26 '14 at 23:21

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