At the Wording Desk
Increase your knowledge of English vocabulary by learning
how some new words were formed due to juncture loss and error
Words Born in Error
How misreading, mishearing and misunderstanding foreign languages makes new words in English
Everything is in apple-pie order? Really?
So just when was an apple pie a relevant instance of good order? Never! The metaphor makes no sense, because the phrase is an Anglo-Saxon reading error for a quite different and quite apt expression of what is neat and in precise arrangement.
“Apple-pie order” began as an Anglo-Norman phrase, a French high-table expression hurried into eleventh-century English, nappes pliées literal translation ‘linen folded (neatly).’ Certainly carefully folded table linens would present a visible sign of tidy placement, of “apple-pie order.” In modern French la nappe can mean ‘the tablecloth.’ Think of the root with an English diminutive suffix added, to get napkin.
How did such an error occur? Simple. In many medieval manuscripts, there was no space between words. All the words in a sentence were written jammedsoclosetogetheritwashardtotell where one word began and another ended. A large number of Anglo-Saxon readers had very limited knowledge of their new conquerors’ language, namely, French. So reading or hearing a person unacquainted with French say aloud a nappes-pliées might indeed sound like ‘an apple pie,’ due to the wrong sound given to the French vowel /i/ and a sort of metathetic duplication of the consonant /p/.
Another form of la nappe also gave English readers trouble. An augmentative form of nappe was a naperon (modern French napperon) ‘a large piece of table-cloth’ used to protect a cook or servant’s clothes from kitchen stains and splashes. English speakers with little French heard it from Anglo-Normans not as a napron but as ‘an apron,’ and so today it remains apron. But it does derive from medieval Latin napa or nappa. Its initial n is gone due to juncture loss.
Principally these errors involve not recognizing the proper separation or joining place of two words and one of the names for this mistake is juncture loss.
Juncture loss is also called false splitting or misdivision and is a kind of rebracketing.
Rebracketing is a form of folk etymology, for example, people who don’t know the history of the word think hamburger comes from ‘ham’ and ‘burger’ and was a sandwich that contained in its original form ham and not beef. But of course hamburger the word derives from the great German port city of Hamburg at the mouth of the Elbe River. Hamburg is a compound German place word named after the first building there, a castle built by Charlemagne in AD 808. Burg in German referred to ‘a fortress, a fort, a fortified settlement.’ Think of the old Lutheran hymn "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott" 'A mighty fortress is our God.'
Ham may be from a Teutonic root for ‘wet meadow’ or it might be a dialectical altering of Heim ‘home.’ Only centuries later did hamburger name a minced-meat paddy served on a sliced bun. It may have originated at a Hamburg eating place or been brought to American by German immigrants in the 19th or early 20th century.
The great linguist Otto Jespersen included juncture loss when in 1914CE he coined the word metanalysis to mean, as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary “The reinterpretation of the form of a word resulting in the creation of a new word; esp. the changing of the boundaries between words or morphological units.”
Juncture loss is metanalytic, but so are “false plural” forms like peas and cherries, now taken as plural nouns but which began verbal life as singulars, pease and in Old English ciris, with Middle English forms like chiri, chery, chirrie, cheryse and a litte later duing the sixteenth century cherries.
Pea is a mistaken back-formation from the once singular form pease. Cherries is old northern French cherise ‘a cherry’ from the more widespread early French form still in modern French use cerise ‘a cherry.’ Cerise is a colour adjective as well in modern French and English. The modern German word for cherry Kirsche stems from the same classical Latin root as French cerise, namely cerasum and the Romans borrowed their name for the sweet drupe from ancient Greek κεράσιον kerasion 'cherry.'
Never mind Filthy Lucre; Here’s Mistaken Lucre
“Riches are a good hand maiden, but a poor mistress,” wrote Francis Bacon. He might have added ‘and not a very sound plural.’ Riches was originally a singular word. It came into English directly from the singular French noun la richesse and was misread and misheard as a plural.
A Nickname is Actually an Eke-name
A verb in English permits us to eke out a bare living, a mere subsistence. To eke means ‘to grow, to add on, and to prolong by making do.’ In older English eke was a noun too that meant ‘addition, something added on’ like an extra name. Eke as an adverb can mean ‘also.’ This is an example of what one of my old English teachers called “the sticky ‘n’ words.” Once, in English, an additional name was called an eke-name. Then people misheard “an eke-name” as ‘a nickname’ and a new word was born due to false splitting of two words or juncture loss.
What an Errant Reptile!
In Old English there once slithered a snake called a naddre. But sloppy listeners kept correcting the speaker, saying that it was not a naddre but an adder. No, it wasn’t. But adder, the wrong term, became the correct word and naddre quite disappeared. The word naddre was as old as the hills, from an Proto-Indo-European root *(s)neh- ‘twist together, spin, twine about, slither’ with cognates all over the place, for example Latin natrix ‘water snake,’ Welsh neidr ‘grass snake,’ Old Norse nathr and Old Irish nathir.
That slinky little salamandrid, the amphibian newt, began verbal life as an ewt. But juncture loss insured it would survive in modern English as a newt. In Middle English it was an ewt, from an earlier mysterious form efete.
Kill the Umpire!
Born in error, umpire started verbal life as a French non-pareil, a person not equal to other players due to his position as arbiter of games, its borrowed forms from French into English appearing as Middle French nonper (non + per ‘peer’), then early in the fifteenth century in Anglo-Norman as nompere, then noumpere, then the final metanalytical transformation to be misread and misheard as ‘an umpire.’
Slice of Cheese with that Humble Pie?
Humble pie began in Middle French as cooked parts of deer, calf, rougher beef, and pork called nombles. A nombles pie was heard by Anglo-Saxons with little French as an umble pie, then a humble pie. The French word had already suffered a pronunciation change called dissimilation, in which a classical Latin l gets changed into an n. French nombles derives from Latin lumbulus ‘little pieces of loin or similar meat’ from Latin lumbus ‘loin.’ Think of medical English and your lumbar vertebrae or lumbar region.
To end this feast of error, let me just say that I’ve watched plenty of poorly-judged major-league baseball games this season and I deem a new form of the word umpire to be necessary. With all due lack of humility, as is my wont, I offer the tentative form numb-pire to delineate properly the slovenly and prejudicial lack of keen judgment I’ve witnessed from umpires in the American League East all summer long. Why is there no corrective for bad umpiring, yet bad baseball players are traded into oblivion without mercy? Just asking.
Bill Casselman, September 18, 2017
Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman