When my friend Janey decided to name her new Eskimo puppy “Neskimo” because she thought her mother had said it was “a neskimo dog,” her older brothers thought it was a great joke. For weeks they went around saying things like “I had a napple for lunch” and “I just read a story about a nelf” and “Don’t forget to take a numbrella to school.”
What Janey’s brothers didn’t know is that several of the words we use in all seriousness came into the English language the same way Neskimo got his name.
You may have seen a picture of the creature called a “newt.” It looks like a lizard, but it has no scales or knobs. About four hundred years ago in England, this little animal was called “an ewt.” Somewhere back in history someone made Janey’s mistake and started calling it “a newt” and the mistake stuck!
The confusion over “a’ and “an” that gave English the word “newt” has also given us several words that once began with “n” but now begin with a vowel.
An auger is a carpenter’s tool that bores holes in wood. It used to be called a nauger.
An adder is a snake. In England the word refers to a poisonous snake. In America there are some nonpoisonous snakes that are called adders. Back when an auger was a nauger, an adder was a nadder.
You’d think that anything as common in the home as an apron would never give people the same trouble as a carpenter’s tool or a poisonous snake, but what we call “an apron’ was once called “a napron.” A possible reason that English-speaking people got mixed up on this one is that the word was borrowed from the French language. It comes from the same word that gives us “napkin.” Back when some proud cook told the neighbors about getting “ a napron,” someone heard it as “an apron” and that’s what we call it now.
An umpire is the person in the black suit who stands behind home plate during a baseball game to make sure that the players follow the rules. Like the word “apron,” “umpire” came to English from French. The French word, which came into English as “numpire,” meant “not equal.” In a ball game the players cannot be depended on to see everything that happens. They need someone who is not playing to keep an eye on things. That person, who is not their “equal,” is the umpire.
Anyone who steps in to settle a dispute between two or more people can be called “an umpire.” For example, two English cooks, proud of their new naprons, may have gotten into an argument as to which napron was the better. “Quick,” says a neighbor, “let’s get a numpire to settle this.” “What’s an umpire?” asks another, and again someone’s mistake in hearing becomes a permanent part of our language.
As for Janey and Neskimo, her brothers should know that it was just “a nhonest” mistake.
This article appeared under the by-line Margaret Maddox in Highlights for Children, June 1984.