Apron, adder, and other words that used to begin with ‘n’…
The words app and nap might rhyme, but to say they sound exactly the same is quite clearly wrong. Well, it is quite clearly wrong until you precede them with the indefinite article. There is nothing (apart from context) to distinguish an app from a nap in spoken English, unless you rather take your time between words.
Because it is impossible in fast speech to tell whether the sound /n/ belongs to the indefinite article or the following noun, over the years the letter N has on rare occasions migrated from one word to the other. This process is referred to as metanalysis.
Below are a few examples of words that had their beginnings in beginning with N.
The word adder has evolved in meaning as well as form. It started its life in Old English, and originally referred to a serpent or snake of an unspecified breed, often in the context of the Fall in the Garden of Eden, where the devil takes on the shape of a snake to tempt Eve. The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) shows the spelling as nædran, an inflected form of nædre, and adder continued to be spelt with an initial N up until at least the 16th century (and still is in some regional varieties).
The meaning of apron has changed little over its centuries of use but, like adder, apron is found first with an initial N (borrowed from French naperon), with its first citation (according to current OED research) in the early 14th century, as the plural napperonns. The form apron first appears later (also in Middle English), although the form napron persists into the 16th century, and (once again) still survives in regional English. Nap, in relation to fabric, is also still seen in napkin.
The word auger (as seen in the image above) has impressively stuck around since approximately 700AD, and in over a millennium has retained its original meaning of: ‘A tool … for boring holes in wood’. There were a good few years before auger lost its initial N, with the first example of augur cited in the OED from the 15th century. However, the N was not shaken off overnight — examples of nauger, nagares, and naugers are found well into the 16th century, and forms like nauger and noger survive regionally.
Umpire began as noumper in the 14th century, and forms without an initial N are found as early as the beginning of the 15th century. Nevertheless, forms with an initial N continue to be used into the 17th century. One example even gives both options by referring to a “Nowmpere, or owmpere”.
In each of these cases, there is a considerable overlap between when a word was last used with initial N and when it appeared without it, with centuries sometimes elapsing between the dominance of the new form and the loss of the old form. This demonstrates how gradual language change can be. And just to prove it can be more gradual still, sometimes a new form will appear, but doesn’t make it as far as replacing the original form. At least so far. This brings me to…
Aunts, Naunts, Uncles, and Nuncles
Unlike the examples above, aunt seems to have been aunt first, being quite N-less in its first OED citation (dated at 1297) and this is the form most commonly used today. During this period, naunt emerged as a variant, with examples dating from the 15th century right through to the 20th century (latterly chiefly in regional use). This form is certainly not standard English, but a 500-year stretch is nothing to be sniffed at. Similarly, we have uncle, found as vncle from the late 13th century, but with an example of its counterpart nuncle (as nunkul) attested as early as 1426. Both naunt and nuncle still survive in regional and colloquial English.
This process can also take place in reverse. The word nickname was originally an eke-name, where eke meant ‘an addition or supplement’ – thus, it meant ‘an additional name’. This sense of eke can still be seen in the related verb eke, as in ‘to eke out a living’.
By the mid-1400s, an eke-name was being shifted to a neke-name and, by the 1600s, the spelling had arrived at nickname, probably influenced by the existing English word nick.
One Nother Thing…
Some readers—particularly speakers of North American English—are likely to be familiar with the phrase a whole nother, where another has been rudely interrupted by whole (this phenomenon is known as tmesis, and also includes examples like abso-blooming-lutely). However, in this instance the development seems to have been aided by earlier metanalysis of ‘another’ as ‘a nother’, which has a history stretching back to Middle English. North American colloquial use of nother for other can be traced back to at least 1835 (in the words of Davy Crockett, no less). Researchers at the OED have found a whole nother used as far back as 1910, and a search of the Oxford English Corpus brings up 260 hits. Not much compared to over 1,600 for a whole other, but certainly enough to suggest that we might have one more migrating N to keep our eyes on.