Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

People say this so much (instead of "another whole" way, etc.) that I wonder how it got started. How did "another whole..." get changed to "a whole nother..."?

share|improve this question
13  
There's a bit of false premise here: the "proper" form of a whole nother is a whole other, not another whole (the latter sounds more wrong than nother). –  Marthaª Jul 7 '11 at 13:17
1  
"Another whole way of looking at things" makes no sense to me. Another whole way? As opposed to another partial way? –  Marthaª Jul 7 '11 at 13:28
1  
A whole other way? As opposed to a partial other way? This cuts both ways. –  Daniel Jul 7 '11 at 13:31
5  
@drm65: No, because the expression is formed by analogy with things like "A whole new world of opportunity" - you couldn't say "*A new whole world of opportunity" to mean the same thing. –  psmears Jul 7 '11 at 13:34
9  
As an adverb, "whole" means "completely", so "a whole other way" means "a completely different way" (yes, as opposed to a partially different way). If you switch the order around, however, then "whole" becomes an adjective modifying "way", which is just nonsensical. –  Marthaª Jul 7 '11 at 13:38
show 3 more comments

5 Answers

up vote 41 down vote accepted

This is an example of metanalysis: taking two words that occur in close proximity, and re-analyzing them so that the word boundary changes position. In this case, the common phrase an other is reanalyzed as a nother, which then allows the insertion of the word whole to give a whole nother.

Metanalysis has happened several times in English, the most common being the word apron, which was originally napron, but suffered metanalysis from a napron into an apron. For this reason, I doubt that the creation of this phrase was an example of deliberate play on words. Rather, it's an example of a process of word-formation which operates sporadically in English, and has for a long time.

This metanalysis isn't complete, as most speakers, including myself, don't really use the word nother except in this phrase. I would never say the nother thing, for example.

share|improve this answer
4  
+1 thank you - very informative –  Unreason Jul 7 '11 at 13:43
1  
@JSbangs: another nice example is ewt becoming newt, which goes in the opposite direction from napron*/*apron. –  PLL Jul 18 '11 at 7:20
    
Excellent answer. I'd use this phrase aloud but never write it, so I don't know whether it will ever survive to get in print. –  Lisa Aug 3 '11 at 8:00
    
A third example is ‘an adder’, which used to be ‘a nadder’ (related to German Natter). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 17 '13 at 10:38
add comment

In addition to JSBangs' metanalysis reference I found the following in classical rhetoric (as one often does):

Tmesis, Gk. "a cutting", Also sp. timesis, dissectio

Interjecting a word or phrase between parts of a compound word or between syllables of a word.

Examples:

  • In the following sentence the word "appear" occurs between the two words that make up the compound "hereafter."
    This is the place where Christ will come, as will here appear after.

  • In the following sentence, "whatsoever" has been interrupted with "man":
    He shall be punished, what man soever offendeth.

  • In the following passage, "heinous" interrupts "howe'er":
    If on the first, how heinous e'er it be, To win thy after-love I pardon thee. —Shakespeare, Richard II 5.3.34-35

EDIT: There are further examples in wikipedia's article, among which are:

  • "Any-old-how", in which the divisibility of "anything" (as in "any old thing") is mimicked with the usually indivisible "anyhow".
  • "A-whole-nother", in which another (an+other) is reanalyzed as a+nother.
share|improve this answer
    
A very good, relevant treatment. Examples, however, involve compound words broken at word boundary, not monoliths actually "broken down". –  Kris Dec 26 '12 at 7:51
    
Agreed with Kris. Tmesis is the act of deliberately separating a compound word at word boundaries, using them as separate constituents of a clause. That is not quite what happens in ‘a whole nother’. First off, ‘another’ is, despite its orthographic shape, still easily recognisable as determiner + adjective, so splitting it up as such is more a matter of orthography than tmesis; secondly, the split here goes against word boundaries, indicating metanalysis of the adjective. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jul 17 '13 at 10:43
add comment

I don't think it's a play on words. I find myself doing it sometimes, and have reasoned it happens thus: I want to emphasise 'another' so I add 'whole' into the phrase. 'Whole', starting with a consonant, takes the article 'a', leaving over 'nother' to complete the phrase.

It happens because we still recognise 'another' as two words semantically, therefore try to insert things in between them.

share|improve this answer
    
This is kind of like of JSBangs's answer, but much less technical. Which isn't a bad thing. –  John Y Jul 7 '11 at 23:19
add comment

It seems like it started as a play on words: to treat 'another' like 'a nother' and then insert 'whole' between them.

I'm sure it would have been done deliberately. Word play is like that.

share|improve this answer
    
Could this have been done purposefully, or is it unconscious? –  Daniel Jul 7 '11 at 12:07
1  
@drm purely FWIW -- for me, yes, it sounds like a conscious, deliberate play on word sounds. NOT accidental or mistaken, such as when idiots say brought instead of bought. So (my guess) it's deliberate play. Further, for me it has a slightly Southern-USA feel (hard to put finger on why). –  Joe Blow Jul 7 '11 at 12:08
5  
There are many speakers in various regions of the USA who officially pronounce another like a nother. To them, it's not a deliberate play on words. And really, a whole nother should be a whole other in "proper" speech. Anyway, @Joe, I can't believe you go so far as to call idiots those who mix up brought and *bought :( No one is 100% error-free all the time. You never know how close this might get to home. –  Jimi Oke Jul 7 '11 at 13:07
add comment

Where I grew up (in Texas), sentences like "That's a whole nother thing" were common in informal speech—and completely intelligible to hearers of all but the youngest ages. But somehow, when called upon to write the expression, many people use this punctuation:

"I guess I just feel that's a whole 'nother piece of software I'd have to learn," Beavers said.

Since the quoted sentence was spoken in an interview, we can blame the apostrophe before the n in nother on the reporter (or perhaps on a zealous editor). But I don't see any justification for the added punctuation, which logically seems to transform "a whole nother" into "a whole another," albeit in truncated form.

share|improve this answer
add comment

Your Answer

 
discard

By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.