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Migrating letters and other curiosities

Rebracketing occurs when an utterance is broken down and reassembled along the wrong lines, and has produced a number of English words, such as “mall.”

Michaela Rehle/Reuters/File
The inside of the Pasing Arcaden shopping mall in Munich, Germany, is seen on Aug. 18, 2016.

There’s an explanation for the origin of the word mall that I’ve seen on social media: It’s called “the mall” because you’re not going to just one store, you’re going to “them all.” This etymology is incorrect (we’ll talk about where mall comes from next week), but it is not implausible. It is based on a real linguistic phenomenon: rebracketing or metanalysis, which has produced a number of English words.

Rebracketing occurs when an utterance is broken down and reassembled along the wrong lines. The Twitter etymology of mall provides a good example. It is easy to see how one might mistakenly hear “them all” as “the mall.” If people made this mistake often enough, it would produce a new word.

One of the most common kinds of rebracketing occurs when letters migrate between nouns and indefinite articles or pronouns. In the Middle Ages, a nickname was “an ekename,” eke being an old word for an addition or an increase. An ekename was thus an addition to your first and last name. When you say “an ekename” fast, though, it sounds like “a nickname,” and that’s what the word has been since the 15th century. 

Ned, Nelly, and Nan were also formed this way. In Medieval and Early Modern English, nouns that began with a vowel took first- and second-person possessive pronouns that ended with the “n” sound, just as with the indefinite article today. You would say “my lady,” for example, but “mine egg.” Generations of children thus grew up hearing “mine Ed,” “thine Ellie,” and “mine Anne,” explaining how we got nicknames beginning with “n” for names that begin with “e” and “a.” 

The transfer can happen in the other direction, from noun to article, as well. The Old English word for snake was “a neddre,” which became “an adder” in the 15th century. “A napron” became “an apron” around the same time, and “a noumpere” turned into “an umpire.” 

Occasionally rebracketing occurs between languages. The English word orange comes from the Old French pomme d’orenge, which derives from the Arabic na-ranj and ultimately words in Sanskrit and a Dravidian language, all beginning with “n.” This linguistic history traces the geographic spread of the fruit, which is native to Southeast Asia and came to Europe via Arab Spain, arriving next in France and finally medieval England. Along the way, naranj was rebracketed and the “n” disappeared in French (orange) and Italian (arancia), but was kept in Spanish (naranja).  

Rebracketing slowed with the advent of printing, which fixed words in certain spellings and made their boundaries clear. But perhaps it will be reinvigorated on Twitter and other social media sites, where once again #itshardtotellwhereonewordbeginsandanotherends.

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