Word Stories - September 12, 2022 - 3 min


At first glance, the words adder, apron, newt and nickname don’t seem to have much in common. Etymologically speaking, though, these words are bound together by a curious linguistic process called metanalysis. Metanalysis (also known as “rebracketing”, “wrong division”, etc.) is a relatively common phenomenon in the evolution of language, in which speakers accidentally confuse one morphological structure with another in using a given word, and end up changing the word’s accepted structure over time. In practice, the mistaken loss or addition of a n sound (confusing a with an) is the most common way metanalysis forms everyday words. In a previous Word Stories instalment (The Wanderwort Foreign Legion), for example, we traced the process of the Arabic nāranj losing its initial n before becoming the English word orange. The adjective lone (as in the Lone Ranger) seems to have been created in a similar way in Old English, as people combined "all one" into “alone” and then others mistook the new word "alone" for “a lone.” Technically speaking, such metanalyses are mistakes—like a child counting one airplane and then two nairplanes—but from a historical and descriptive point of view, such transformations are a normal and productive part of any living language. This month’s Word Stories shine a spotlight on some common words created by the process of unintentional creativity called metanalysis.


The word adder comes from a metanalysis of a nadder (or naddre). Fifteenth-century Middle English speakers interpreted the initial n of the word as being part of the determiner an, deducing an adder instead of a nadder. Applied to various types of snakes, and not only Vipera berus (the common European adder), the form with n- came from the Old English nǣdre, itself from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic forms nēdrō or nadrō (“viper, adder, or snake”). A frequent use of the noun in the Old English period was to designate the infamous serpent of the Bible’s book of Genesis, which tempts Eve into tasting the forbidden fruit from the “Tree of Knowledge”. The broader metaphorical sense “something treacherous, malevolent, evil” appears to be present at an early stage of the word’s use, including in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Middle English in The Canterbury Tales: “Lyk to the Neddre in bosom, sly vntrewe” (“Like the sly untrue adder in one’s bosom”). The form nedder is still used for the adder in some northern regional dialects of English, but cognates in Modern Dutch (adder) and Middle Low German (ader) have undergone the same metanalysis as in English.


The word apron represents the metanalysis of the two words a napron. Fifteenth-century Middle English speakers interpreted the initial n of the word napron (“tablecloth, apron”) as being part of the determiner an, deducing the form an apron instead of a napron. An English Collection of Ordinances and Regulations for the Government of the Royal Household from the late fifteenth century can be seen hesitating between the two forms: “Lynnen clothe for aprons”, but elsewhere “Naprons of the grete (great) spycery”. The form napron is from the Old French word naperon (“small tablecloth”—still used in Modern French as napperon), the diminutive form of nape or nappe (“tablecloth”), from the Latin mappa (“tablecloth, napkin, sheet”) of unknown further etymology. Etymological sources document a frequent change from m- to n- (mappa ⇒ nappe) when going from Latin etymons to Old French words, although the motivations for this phonetic alteration are unclear. Factors could include the visual proximity of the characters m and n and the articulatory similarity of the two—both are nasals.


Newts are small semiaquatic or fully aquatic amphibians belonging to the family Salamandridae (subfamily Pleurodelinae) with semipermeable and often colourful skin. The name comes from a Middle English metanalysis of an ewt(e) (“a newt”), with ewt(e) being from previous forms euft or evete, modifications of Middle English eft (“newt”). Eft is still used in modern English, and has long been the only term used for the newt in some regional dialects of English. The Century Dictionary (1889–1911) recommends using eft over newt. Today, eft is used in scientific English to refer specifically to the animal in its immature terrestrial stage. We see eft and newt together in late nineteenth century natural history texts, for example in Arabella Burton Buckley’s reference to “Aquatic salamanders, which resemble our newts or efts” (A Short History of Natural Science, 1876). The Middle English eft came from the Old English word efete or efeta, whose ultimate origin is unknown.


Nickname is from the Middle English nekename (“nickname, incorrect or additional name”), a metanalysis of the earlier an ekename (“an additional name”), from eke (“an addition”—a noun form of Middle English eken (“to add”), and name (“name”)). Both elements belong to English’s native lexical stock and have Old English, West Germanic and Proto-Germanic etymons. Cognates of nickname can be found in Danish (øgenavn), Norse (aukanafn) and Low German (Ekelname), although none of those have undergone a similar process of metanalysis. Other spellings have been used, too, as seen in this line from Renaissance humanist and statesman Thomas More: “I shoulde here call Tindall by another name: […] it were no nyck name at all” (The Confutacyon of Tyndales Answere, 1532).

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