false splitting

From A Word A Day:

What’s common among an orange and an omelet… and an uncle and an umpire?

Earlier all these words used to take the indefinite article “a”, not “an”.

They were coined by a process called false splitting. Let’s take orange. The original word was Sanskrit naranga. By the time it reached English, the initial letter n had joined the article a, resulting in “an orange”. The word for orange is still narangi in Hindi, naranja in Spanish, and naranj in Arabic.

This false splitting caused what should have been “a napron” to become “an apron”. The same process transformed “a nadder” into “an adder”, and reshaped many other words.

The n went the other way too. “Mine uncle” was interpreted as “my nuncle” resulting in a synonym nuncle for uncle. The word newt was formed the same way: “an ewte” misdivided into “a newte”.

Could false splitting turn “an apple” into “a napple” or “a nail” into “an ail” some day? Before the advent of printing, the language was primarily oral/aural, resulting in mishearing and misinterpreting. Today, spelling is mostly standardized, so chances of false splitting are slim, though not impossible.

I’m reminded of a false splitting in ancient history: Alexander the Great is known as Al-Iskander in Arabic, where “Al” means “The” and so Alexander’s name was falsely split into Al-Iskander (“The Exander”).

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