Consonant-al Drift

Just as words have reshaped themselves over the centuries, letters have wandered from one word to another, starting with Old English (c.450 to 1000 AD). Read on for a few examples of what some lexicographers call metanalysis.

The sound of the indefinite article a eliding with the initial n of the word that followed occasionally locked the two letters together as an. Accordingly, in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries a napron became an apron, a nauger an augera nadder (Old English’s generic word for serpent) an adder. Likewise, the Middle English noumpere evolved to umpire.

Other words changed when the opposite happened – that is, the n of an moved to the noun. As a result, ewte became newt (shedding its final e along the way) and ekename slowly morphed into nickname.

An earlier example is orange, from the Arabic naranj. Some time before the eleventh century the attached to a as the word moved through Old Italian and Old French to Old English. But the stayed put in the Spanish naranja. That the word stayed close to its original form is explained by Arabian influences on Spain during its occupation by Muslims (711–1491 AD).

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