Word Matters Podcast

Oops: Words Born Out of Mistakes

Word Matters, Episode 21

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Some words are borrowed from elsewhere. Some are created for a purpose. Others are, well, a bit of an accident. Today we're looking at the times English made a mistake, but recovered from it quickly. Then, we'll figure out the legitimacy of a word that annoys many: the troublesome 'enormity.'

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(intro music – “Build Something Beautiful” by Tobias Voigt)

(teaser clips)

Emily Brewster: English is not really generating new forms of words through this process actively because now, so much of our language is written.

Ammon Shea: The question that comes up with a word like this though, as in so many cases, is can language be proscribed? Can the tide of language, of semantic drift, can it be stopped?

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: a bunch of words formed by way of a particular kind of error, and one word that hugely annoys some people. I'm Emily Brewster, and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language, from the dictionary's vantage point.

Words come to English in all sorts of ways. Some are borrowed from other languages, some are invented for a purpose, some slip in through a side door and no one really knows where they came from. Today, we're talking about words that come from a different source, a specific kind of mistake. Next up, I'll look at the times English made a bit of an error and decided to say, "I meant to do that."

Sometimes a word is created or is modified, has a new version, because of a misunderstanding of the borders between existing words. This process is called metanalysis. The definition is "a reanalysis of the division between sounds or words, resulting in different constituents," and the example that's given in the definition is a helpful example. It is the word apron, is now "an apron." You wear an apron. And the word that it was formed from is a naperon.

Neil Serven: Naperon.

Emily Brewster: And English speakers understood "a naperon" as "an apron." There are many words that have achieved their current accepted forms because of this process. Metanalysis is also called false division or misdivision. Apron comes from the French, I think. Peter, is that right? 14th-century word. I'm not going to say it right. Can you say that? N-A-P-E-R-O-N.

Peter Sokolowski: Naperon.

Emily Brewster: Yes, that one. But English speakers, again, understood it as "an apron."

Peter Sokolowski: Because they put the article a or ah in front of naperon.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Which was the normal thing to do. But in speech, you can't really tell the difference.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Think about if I say, "I'm going to take a nap and my phone has an app." In quick speech, you're not going to know which I'm saying if it's isolated. A nap, an app. They're both going to sound exactly the same. My favorite example for form of a word developing because of metanalysis is the word nickname.

Ammon Shea: Ooh, that's a good one.

Emily Brewster: In Middle English, the word eke, E-K-E, meant "also or additional." In Scottish English, this word still functions as a noun, meaning an addition or extension, and an eke name was an additional name. It was an extra name that you had. But "an eke name" became over time "a nickname."

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Neil Serven: And it also kind of probably followed with what we call folk etymology, where people might have been more used to hearing the word nick, like Nick is a nickname in itself. So, perhaps that caught on better than eke name would have, to English speakers. And so, became more comfortable with "a nickname" than "an eke name," right?

Emily Brewster: I think folk etymology plays a part in many of these.

Ammon Shea: There aren't a lot of other eke words that have survived, are there?

Emily Brewster: No, but I like the idea of using eke. I'm going to borrow the Scottish English eke.

Peter Sokolowski: Another one of these is umpire, the word umpire, which is kind of interesting because it also comes from French. The original French word was nompere, which is the same as [in French] nonpareil, nonpareil in English, which means without equal, without peer. The pareil part is "peer." So, without peer and without equal means the person out above or outside of the game. And so, it was "a noumpere," became "an umpire."

Emily Brewster: Another one is auger was originally "a nauger," and newt was originally "an ewt."

Peter Sokolowski: An ewt.

Neil Serven: Ewt.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. There's so many of these have the N sound in them, and that's important for this process. It just makes it so much easier to apply this misdivision when you don't know if the indefinite article being used is a or an. Those are simple variants, right? An we use before a vowel sound, and a without the N we use before consonant sounds. And so, in speech, it's really hard to know which one is being applied, if the word is unfamiliar to you.

Peter Sokolowski: Right, like orange is another one, right? In contemporary Spanish, it's naranja, or naranja. And we got it from French, but originally started with the letter N, and of course, it got dropped. All of this is basically just a phonetic coincidence, right? That the a and an__ happened to be the pair that we in English use as articles.

Emily Brewster: That's right. Another interesting thing to me about the process of metanalysis is that it doesn't really keep happening. English is not really generating new forms of words through this process actively because now, so much of our language is written, and this is really a phenomenon of spoken language.

Peter Sokolowski: So, these all are kind of pre-general literacy, pre-standard dictionaries, essentially pre 1700, basically.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Ammon Shea: Because we're forming new words, the earliest forms of new words that are coming up in writing as opposed to speech.

Peter Sokolowski: True.

Emily Brewster: Well, and because they're reinforced. So, we would see the word eke name written down, so we would not make the mistake. We would know the word eke name, not just by what it sounds like, but what it looks like.

Ammon Shea: Which is itself fascinating, because one of the things that we know from the history of English is that most of the words, avoiding the technical words, things like that, but most of our daily vocabulary, we can find the earliest written record. But typically, we accept that words for most of English were used in speech. They were used colloquially, well before they were used in writing. So, there may have been changes that we're unaware of. And so, it's one of the reasons why we don't think the first written use is the point in which it was invented, because it was in spoken use before that. It feels like in the modern internet era, that we're really moving away from that towards things appearing in print, before they appear in spoken.

Emily Brewster: We see so much more printed language than we ever historically did. I mean, also you think about children though. Language acquisition, the amount of the vocabulary that children acquire before they learn to read is enormous. They learn so, so much. They speak competently before they can read anything. So, those words also are learned only through auditory reception.

Neil Serven: The act of reading or learning to read then becomes about matching words, once you recognize them with sounds for things that you've already known up to that point. Like you see the word car, you already know what a car is when you're four years old. You understand phonetics. You learn that a C makes the K sound and the R and then you put it together. What I've been calling a car up to this point is spelled this way.

Emily Brewster: Right. And then you see the word though, and your brain explodes.

Neil Serven: Explodes. It's interesting, a lot of the examples you brought up involve the article an. So, you have these words that start with N because they were interpreted as beginning with N, because they were really starting with vowels. Eke name became a nickname.

Emily Brewster: Or the other way.

Neil Serven: Or the other way around, which like Peter's example of umpire was noumpere. I'm trying to think of examples that come to mind that don't involve an, involves some other letter. The closest that jumps to my mind that I happen to know, and I'm not even sure if this counts, is the word lone, L-O-N-E, which was formed from the word alone. Alone was formed from words meaning all in one.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh.

Neil Serven: So, if you were alone, you were all one. We kind of contracted alone. We lopped off the A to develop lone, and then we got words like lonely and lonesome. I'm not sure that actually counts, but it feels like there's something in there about how the L was originally part of the all, was added to the one and became lone, and lone had developed its own identity that it didn't have before alone came along.

Emily Brewster: That certainly matches with this idea of misdivision. Right. And I'm not sure also about this as applying, but the word cherry was misunderstood, right? The English language got the word cherry from the French word cherise. And it was understood because it had that S sound at the end, it was understood as a plural. Same thing with the word pea. The original word was pease, P-E-A-S-E. And that was understood to be plural. I think that one was actually a non-count noun. You would have some pease and you would not have a pease. Anyway, again, a misunderstanding of what the word structure really was.

Peter Sokolowski: What Neil just said about alone is interesting because we talk about misdivision, but also this different analysis, right? That just basic way that we sort of conceive whether consciously or not, how a word is formed, because we have things like afar and away, and maybe someone conceived of alone as also being that kind of particle. The A, not being maybe an article, but sort of like "from afar," that kind of idea. So, alone might've seemed separable for that reason.

Neil Serven: And the reason I say it might not count the same way is it might not be due to a misinterpretation. I think it just might've been the case of alone got established in English for so long, people were so comfortable with it that they were then comfortable enough just to lop off that syllable. And the L just happened to stick with the other part.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. It might not be a misdivision, but it could certainly be a reanalysis.

Neil Serven: It's a different division.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, exactly.

Ammon Shea: What I'm curious about is at the beginning of this episode, Emily, you said that nickname or eke name was among your favorite examples of metanalysis, which I have to say strongly applies that you have other favorites. What are some of your other favorite examples then?

Emily Brewster: I like notch. Notch was originally "an oche."

Ammon Shea: An oche.

Emily Brewster: O-C-H-E.

Ammon Shea: That sounds good. That's much more dignified than an ewt.

Emily Brewster: Well, I like ewt also, because the more undignified, the more fun.

Ammon Shea: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: And then there's the aughts, the odd numbers, the zeros, which comes from naught. Of course, naught meaning "zero or nothing." And "an aught" got split after the N rather than before it.

Emily Brewster: Oh, there's also ingot. The story of ingot is a really interesting one, because the Middle French word that ingot comes from was lingot. I'm sure that's not how they said it. How would they say it?

Peter Sokolowski: [_in French] Lingot.

Emily Brewster: Right, like that. The English speakers understood the L at the beginning as being an article, and they lopped it off. But actually, it was the letter L in the word. Like some words in French actually legitimately begin with an L.

Peter Sokolowski: I just realized that that is the same word as tongue from the lang- of language.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, my goodness. Sort of the bells and the lights go off. And that comes from the shape of a bar of gold must have been like that of a tongue or something. So, they chopped off the L.

Emily Brewster: They lost the L. They thought the French didn't mean the L, but the French did mean the L.

Neil Serven: We talked about the fact that we don't often see these metanalyses happening in modern English, probably because of people learning words as they read them, and knowing how they come from, so they don't need to interpret the sound. I thought of the phrase "straight and narrow," which I know I've seen in print quite often as interpreted as "straight and arrow."

Emily Brewster: Ah, well then, we're getting into the category of eggcorns.

Neil Serven: Eggcorns, yes. So, and it kind of makes sense because of, you hear "straight arrow" all the time or "straight as an arrow" all the time, but to be on the straight and narrow, they usually, the way we enter that phrase has the N. So, if he's on a path of good behavior, he's on the straight and narrow. That seems to be like one that's interpreted perhaps because of the conflation with the other phrase. But also because of the sound, even though you've got the D in there. You often drop the D anyway in and, so people would often hear "straight and arrow."

Emily Brewster: That's a really interesting point. And I think at some point, we need to do an episode that is just about eggcorns. And I'm now thinking about are eggcorns, the modern version of metanalysis. An eggcorn is an incorrect understanding of a word or phrase. It has to sound plausible.

Ammon Shea: Chester drawers.

Emily Brewster: "Chester drawers" instead of "chest of drawers."

Neil Serven: "For all intensive purposes," instead of "all intents and purposes."

Emily Brewster: "Nip it in the butt" instead of "nip it in the bud."

Neil Serven: And so, they usually develop a life of their own, even though they're picked up sort of erroneously.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: But what's interesting, Emily, is that you're talking about evolutions that happen by ear, by the phonetic somehow. And that gets us back to this idea of these English changes happening before general literacy just makes me think we're so literate. In other words, we're drowning in text. We forget that the population of Britain in 1600 that was actually functionally literate was tiny, and the number of people who were spelling their own names and reading literature or whatever it was they were reading. Printed material was expensive. Printing was difficult and arduous. We've kind of changed our context for the creation of language, in a certain kind of way.

Emily Brewster: Made for a much more malleable language, I think.

You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be back after the break with what, to some, is an enormously annoying meaning of enormity. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word, available at Merriam-Webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at NEPM.org.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin, history, or meaning of a word? Email us at WordMatters@M-W.com.

(music break)

Emily Brewster: Some words stay put, semantically speaking. They keep their noses down and do the job they've always done. But many words shift in meaning over time, taking on new uses that are readily adopted by some, but hugely problematic for others. Here's Ammon Shea with what, for some people, is a particularly enormous problem: enormity.

Ammon Shea: It is time now for the next installment of the segment that we love to call Words Which Prove Vexatious To Many. That is trademarked, by the way, so don't try to steal that and use that. And I'm sure you guys all have some personal favorites, words which are vexatious to you. But more so than your personal favorites, we tend to get complaints from the general public of words or meanings that they consider to be particularly irksome or vexatious. And we've talked about a lot of them on this show previously, but the one I wanted to touch upon today is enormity.

Neil Serven: Enormity.

Peter Sokolowski: Aha.

Ammon Shea: Yes. Which I'm sure all of you have heard many complaints about before. The root, so to speak, of the problem with enormity is that it is often used to mean "of large size." And a number of people find this use offensive, and hold that enormity, in proper use, should only be used to mean "great wickedness," or "the quality or state of being monstrous, outrageous, or immoderate," which is one of the definitions we give. We also do define this word as "the quality or state of being huge, immensity, or a quality of momentous importance or impact," with no actual judgment attached to it.

Emily Brewster: It sounds like it's related to the word enormous, and enormous does mean large.

Ammon Shea: It does now, but when enormous first came about, it did have a meeting that was quite similar. It was more "deviation from a norm," but it often was used in a bad sense.

Emily Brewster: Ah, I had never thought of this before, but e-norm, the norm is the norm of normal.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely. And one of the things that's interesting about enormity is, as a noun, there is often a suggestion of what word one should use to denote large size. And it is enormousness. Unfortunately, enormousness for several hundred years, when it was first used, had a very, very singular meaning, which was of course "great wickedness." It was not until the late 18th century that enormousness started to be used meaning "size." And what's interesting about this is that enormity had been used to mean "great size" for hundreds of years already at that point. Enormity did first come about with the meaning of "great wickedness," etc., going back to the 13th or 14th century.

However, by 1532, we do have evidence. Thomas Elyot used it in his translation of Plutarch's Education or Bringing up of Children. And he wrote, "The chief or captain of them was named Polyphemus who excelled all the others in enormity of stature." And Polyphemus, of course, was the Cyclops who spent so much of his time in The Odyssey eating Odysseus's men. He was, in fact, quite large. He was also quite wicked.

Emily Brewster: Right, enormous in both ways.

Ammon Shea: Right. He was enormous and enormous. He was doubly enormous. However, in this sense, Elyott is clearly referencing the size of Polyphemus rather than his actual iniquity.

Emily Brewster: So, who started the vitriol against enormity? Or when?

Ammon Shea: I don't know. My guess would be early 20th century is-

Emily Brewster: That recent?

Ammon Shea: I think so. I don't think this extended much past that.

Emily Brewster: So, I feel like we could probably pin the blame on a particular person.

Ammon Shea: Well, we can always blame Richard Grant White.

Emily Brewster: Okay.

Ammon Shea: I think it was just that enormity did come to mean great wickedness, in that use for a large amount of time. It did become the primary use. However, in the 20th century, particularly, things have started kind of moving back. One of the best known cases was in 2008. Barack Obama was giving a speech and he talked about the enormity of the American accomplishment. And then in 2009, in January, he gave another speech and he spoke of the enormity of the task that lies ahead. So, Obama was very clearly using it in the sense of merely great size.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: It attracted a lot of negative attention, kind of like wearing a tan suit or eating mustard or something like that. About the same level of importance linguistically speaking.

Emily Brewster: Well, because when enormity is used to mean largeness, it is more typically used of a largeness that is overwhelming in some sense.

Ammon Shea: Right.

Emily Brewster: That is not inspiring or is not something to be praised, but it is an enormity that is, say, hanging over one's head.

Ammon Shea: Yeah, absolutely. The question that comes up with a word like this though, as in so many cases, is can language be proscribed? Can the tide of language, of semantic drift, can it be stopped? Given that enormity started off meaning great wickedness then took on a meaning of great size, then moved back towards mainly meaning great wickedness, and now is probably being used mostly to mean large size by many people.

Neil Serven: I feel like this is following the same patterns that other words that we featured on this program have taken, such as when we talked about wonderful, the semantic drift of wonderful and how we now kind of use it to mean this great thing. It's sort of slightly flattening the meaning when it originally referred to things that generated wonder. And so now, we've got enormous. Frankly, I did not understand that there were other meanings besides great size, and it wasn't until you pointed it out, Emily, the etymology, obviously, the Es, obviously the prefix, and then you've got this root for normal. And then, so it's obviously something that's abnormal or-

Emily Brewster: It's outside the norm.

Neil Serven: Outside what is considered normal. And so, then regarded as being something maybe to be frightened of, something to be a deviant.

Ammon Shea: It's outside of the rule.

Neil Serven: Right.

Ammon Shea: To follow the etymology.

Neil Serven: And of course, we also have all these other words in English that are great size or just that mean very large. And so, it almost seems like it rolled toward that lump of other words that then meant the same thing, like gigantic, like immense or whatever. And so, it followed that, sort of neutralized so that, that particular original meaning, that clarity of distinction, is lost.

Ammon Shea: I think for enormity we started losing that distinction, say, back in 1532. The chances that we're going to get it back now after almost 500 years are pretty slim, I think.

Emily Brewster: But that you can understand and have sympathy for the people who desire for there to be these kinds of distinctions.

Ammon Shea: Absolutely.

Emily Brewster: They really want to preserve that narrowed meaning of the word enormity.

Peter Sokolowski: There's something appealing about making that distinction. Enormity versus enormousness, like further and farther or whatever. They can be almost arbitrarily kind of divided.

Emily Brewster: In my house, we just go with ginormousness.

Peter Sokolowski: Aha.

Emily Brewster: Actually, I don't know why, but my four-year-old, her word for something that is very big is ginormous.

Neil Serven: By combining either giant or gigantic and enormous.

Emily Brewster: And enormous, that's right.

Neil Serven: It strikes me as suggesting that enormous obviously is thought of in terms of size. Right?

Emily Brewster: Oh, she has no idea about the "wickedness" meaning of enormity.

Ammon Shea: Wait till we talk to her about this.

Emily Brewster: Right, the entire generation, and generations, including you. I don't think I knew about the "wickedness" meaning of enormity until I started working on dictionaries. I had no idea. It's not in my idiolect. I didn't come across it. If I saw it in a book, which I probably did, it didn't register in my mind that it meant wickedness.

Ammon Shea: It hasn't been common for some time, I think. In our unabridged, the earliest definitions that we give are "exceeding the usual rule, norm, and measure out of proportion," but also "exceedingly wicked, monstrous, and shocking." So, it was clearly the earliest use, or among the earliest uses of the word.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at M-W.com. You can also visit us at NEPM.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit Merriam-Webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt, artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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