A nother norange, please

I was just writing an email, and when I reread it, I was surprised to see I had written, “In an attempt to bring some levity to another wise sad topic…” What I meant to write, of course, was “an otherwise sad topic.”

Another is interesting. First, it’s a composite of an and other that forms a discrete word meaning ‘one more’. This marriage lends itself to misparsing or reanalysis, reflected in the phrase which most English speakers use unconsciously “a whole nother” as in “that’s a whole nother ballgame,” or “I ate a whole nother piece by myself,” etc. Rarely, if ever, do you see it written, but you hear it (or say it) all the time.

In the case of my error above, other is so tightly associated with an in my brain that it told my hands to keep them together and amputate wise. But that, of course, would change the meaning – “another wise, sad topic,” that is, an additional topic that is wise and sad? Not what I meant.

Back to “a whole nother.” This isn’t terribly strange when you come to learn that the indefinite article ‘an’ can be fickle. It’s dumped its ‘n’ on more than one occasion as with a nickname and a notch; likewise, ‘a’ has stolen it away from nouns like an apron and an umpire. This reanalysis occurs because nouns that start with a vowel trigger an appended ‘n’ on the indefinite article a leaving the brain room to confuse which word the ‘n’ belongs to. So if these reanalyses hadn’t occurred at some point in the history of English we might see a sentence like this: A foodie at heart, the retiring numpire had to poke a new otch in his belt after he traded in his baseball gear for a chef’s napron, earning him the ickname Plumpire.

Indeed, nickname comes from ekename, notch from otch, apron from napron and umpire from noumper. The reanalyses occurred in this way:

  • an ekename > a nickname
  • an otch > a notch
  • a napron > an apron
  • a noumper > an umpire
  • (and perhaps most recently) another > a nother

Curiously enough this happened with orange, too – but before it even got to English. Orange comes from from Arabic naranj. Spanish preserves word-initial ‘n’ in naranja, but French and Italian do not with orange and arancia respectively. The loss of the ‘n’ probably occurred in French and Italian in a very similar fashion as the English examples above: the ‘n’ in the indefinite articles une and una absorbed the ‘n’ from narange and narancia in the phrases Fr. une narange and It. una narancia. By the time Fr. orenge was borrowed into English, the ‘n’ was long gone.

In Portuguese, orange is laranja. So where’d the ‘l’ come from? This time most likely from the definite article in Arabic al-naranj. Maybe it has to do with the fact that Portuguese sailors brought sweet oranges from India to western Europe centuries after the loss of ‘n’ would have occurred in French and Italian, and with newfound interest in the fruit along Arab-Portuguese trading routes, the ‘l’ from the Arabic article al- was reincorporated into the Portuguese word for orange. The original word-initial ‘n’ is notably absent from Pt. laranja, making me think it actually was aranja at one point, and the ‘l’ was appended later. How Spanish managed to maintain the ‘n’ is intriguing.

Here’s a cool etymology dictionary. Look up nickname to see more about eke-name, eke’s origin and it’s modern-day representation in the phrase “eke out”.


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