According to Etymonline:


from Old French essemple "sample, model, example, precedent, cautionary tale," from Latin exemplum "a sample, specimen; from ex- "out" (see ex-) + emere "buy," originally "take," from PIE root *em- "to take, distribute."


1580s, "fit to be an example," from Middle French exemplaire, from Late Latin exemplaris "that serves as an example, pattern, or motto," from exemplum "example, pattern, model"

Given that both terms derive from French “essemple, exemplaire” how come that example, unlike exemplary, is spelled with an “a” after the prefix ex, and not with an “e”?

  • 2
    @user3850720— thanks for the superb edit.
    – aarbee
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 7:06
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    Yes: the original was close-votable. This edit is superb; how do we upvote Mr/Mrs/... 385? Commented May 27, 2018 at 7:20
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    A moderator, MetaEd, has said: 'Avoid posting questions that do not detail the effort you have already made to find an answer.... Such questions may be closed as lacking research effort until they are edited to include research. Research can take many forms: checking references [Etymon is listed at the help center as general reference], searching this site for similar questions ... See "How much research is needed? – EL&U Meta".' And to quote Dan Bron: '[ELU requires] a demonstration of effort on behalf of the OP on par with the effort OP would like potential answerers to demonstrate.' Commented May 27, 2018 at 8:10
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    @EdwinAshworth- Thanks. I assure you I had made the similar research as reflected in the edit. However, I hadn't included it in the post. Thanks for the clarification, I'll try to conform to the standards next time onwards.
    – aarbee
    Commented May 27, 2018 at 8:13
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    @RobbieGoodwin - if you read carefully, both Old and Middle French terms have an "e" not an "a" after the prefix, unlike the English terms. The good answer below well explains the "pronunciation" implications and origin of the spelling difference. Something I'd not refer to as General Reference. As for the bounty, I should probably have placed a fatter one.
    – user 66974
    Commented May 31, 2018 at 8:22

2 Answers 2


Fairly early on in French, the nasal vowel represented by "en/em" merged into the nasal vowel represented by "an/am". The exact details of how the merger developed seem to be fairly complicated, but as far as I can tell, it was in progress by the time the word "example" entered English and had already affected the spelling of the word in relevant varieties of French, and so English adopted the word with "a" rather than with "e".

Evpok♦'s answer to a relevant question on French SE, "Why are “an” and “en” pronounced the same? Pourquoi « an » et « en » ont-ils la même prononciation ?", links to the blog post "la nasalization", by G. Pascault, which says that the change "ẽ̩m > ãm" occurred around the 11th-13th centuries (the blog post presents it as part of a general set of changes involving nasal vowels receiving a more open pronunciation, like õ̩n > õ̜n, ĩn > ẽn and ü̃n > œ̃n).

A relevant book I accessed through Google Books, The formation and evolution of the French nasal vowels, by Bernard L. Rochet (1976), says

in Old French – with the exception of Picard – eN and aN seem to have been in the process of merging; the extent of the merger varied according to the regions and probably also to the social classes of the speakers. This sociological conditioning of the evolution of eN does not receive any direct empirical support from Old French texts but is inferred from the situation described by the sixteenth century grammarians.

(p. 87)

I haven't found a source yet that connects this sound change to the variation in the spelling of the French word essample/essemple/example/exemple, but I assume that is what is behind it.

Rochet mentions some other words that showed variation between spellings with "en/em" and spellings with "an/am", including one that is related to another pair of words showing an am/em change that we see in present-day English: ambassador vs. embassy.

The numerous orthographic variants found at that period [the 16th century] indicate that whatever distinctions, based on the opposition eN : aN, were still observed, they were only the remnants of a rapidly disappearing situation. Thus, Robert Estienne (1549) acknowledges the following alternations: "cravanter ou craventer," "ambassade et embassade", "tencer, voyez tanser", "panser ung malade. Voyer penser," etc.

(p. 96)

Interestingly, for ambassade the spelling with a seems to be closer to the etymology, the opposite of the situation with example.

  • +1 Nice post. (and useful for me with my students) Commented Jun 1, 2018 at 8:37
  • "I haven't found a source yet ..." -- See lly on this page.
    – Kris
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 5:44

Given that both terms derive from French “essemple, exemplaire” how come that example, unlike exemplary, is spelled with an “a” after the prefix ex, and not with an “e”?

Oh, that's easy.

Because Etymonline is frequently wrong, as in this case.

'Example' derives from Anglo-Norman 'exaumple', not directly from French 'essample', 'essemple' or Latin 'exemplum'. The OED lists 26 attested variant spellings, only 5 of which involve 'correction' to the French or Latin vowel.

'Exemplary' came directly from Latin 'exemplaris', the adjectival form of 'exemplum'.

Per the Rochet source cited by Sumelic, the full conflation of the nasal French vowels occurred (by 16th c.) after these words are attested in English use (14th c.). The Norman shift was just part of their general dialect/pronunciation of Franco-Latinate terms, one later seen in the rest of France in their merging pronunciations.

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