The Friday Fillip: ‘N’Junction

Only a fool says “nuncle.”

Used to be part of my favourite mock Elizabethan phrase, feeling good in the mouth: “Prithee nuncle…” But now I know that there never was a “nuncle”. I had thought it was one of those English words that shed the initial “N” because of the possessive “mine” or the indefinite article “an” on account of the way the combo got pronounced: “My nuncle” / “A nuncle” –> “mineuncle” / “anuncle” –> “mine uncle” / “an uncle”. In the world of linguistics this is known as rebracketing (or metanalysis, which sounds too grand to me), where peceived pronunciation ultimately changes word boundaries. You can hear it starting to happen today with the the article+noun “an other”, which almost no one pronounces with a little break (glottal stop?) after “an”, and few with the “an” pronounced like “Anne”; rather, it’s very close to “uh nother.” So watch for the new word “nother” to appear in media near you soon.

“Nuncle”? Well it turns out that Shakespeare in all his works has only the Fool say it a dozen times or so in Lear, which goes to show you what he thought of rebracketing in his day.

Similar thing did in fact happen with “mine aunt” and it got rather more traction that the fool’s hold obtained by “nuncle.” Thus, the mistaken “naunt” could be found in practice from about the 13th to the 17th centuries, according to the OED.

A bunch of other English words have been rebracketed, many losing an initial “N” rather than gaining one. “Adder,” the snake, was once properly “nadder”, as it is today in the German Natter. “Apron” once had an “N” at the start, from the Old French napperon, something we can still see with “napery” (though I’m not sure of my etymology here). “Orange” is often thought to have undergone this same process, and it did but not in English: once having an initial “N” — narang in Persian, naranja in Spanish — the fruit and the name wandered slowly into colder climes and some place in France lost the initial “N”, arriving in England eventually as the “orange”.

Other words picked up the otiose “N” along the way. “Ewt” became newt well before Shakespeare’s Second Witch tossed in the eye of one along with the toe of a poor frog. And nickname was once an “ekename” — eke (additional) + name, which is better than the sometimes touted etymology that has the “nick” of nickname meaning Nick, a name for the Devil.

And there are two of these transformers with vague connection to things legal: umpire and nonce. Here’s the Wiktionary etymology for umpire:

From a Middle English misconstruction of noumpere, from Old French nonper (“odd number, not even (as a tie-breaking arbitrator)”), from non (“not”) + per (“equal”), from Latin par (“equal”)

“Nonce” happened even earlier, moving from something like Early Middle English Þan ones (something like “the one time”?) to the modern — well, more nearly modern — expression you’ll sometimes find in legal documents.

And that’s it for the nonce. Except for me to leave you with a rebracketed spring flower, because it’s supposed to be spring soon. “Daffodil” — a favourite of mine and the bulb the squirrels won’t eat — got the “D” in Netherlands, quite likely. The daffy plant is affodillus in Medieval Latin, with a good classical Latin and Greek heritage; the guessing is that in Netherlands, where the definite article is de, “de affodil” turned into our daffodil.

Photo by jiinko

Photo by jiinko


  1. “Nother” was regularly invoked on Fox’s MadTV c.2004-07 by the character Eugene Strothers (played by Keegan-Michael Key), whose catch phrase was “Hole Nother Level” often abbreviated as “taking to the HNL.” Search in YouTube.

  2. I suppose this is also how we came up with “Slaw” (It’s law…)?