In the study of language change over time, rebracketing, also known as “juncture loss” and “re-segmentation”, is a process whereby a word is broken down into constituent parts and then reorganized. For example, the word hamburger might be divided as ham-burger, which could mean a burger made with ham. However, that would be wrong, because the division is rightfully hamburg-er, meaning someone or something from Hamburg, Germany.

Historical false-splitting or mis-division

A famous historical example has the word orange as a re-bracketing of “a norange” into “an orange”. However, there never was an English word norange. The orange originated in northeastern India or southern China, where it was called naranga. Traders, who called it naranj, brought it into North Africa and then into Italy, where it was called arangia. In France, the fruit was called pomme d’orenge , losing the initial ‘n’ (back then, anything that grew on a tree was called an “apple of something”). The loss of the ‘n’ may also be due to the fact that there was a city in France called Orange (named after an old Celtic settlement called Aurasio). It finally hit England somewhere between the 14th and 16th century, where it was called, simply, orange.

Reason for the problem

In English, the indefinite article may be a or an, depending on whether it’s followed by a word that starts with a consonant or a vowel (e.g., a car, an otter). When the consonant is an n, as above, it would seem that re-bracketing “an orange” would yield “a norange”. Except that, in this case, the re-bracketing would be incorrect. The same problem would occur if trying to show that “a noodle” was once “an oodle” or “an eagle” was once “a neagle”. Even though these re-bracketings are possible, they’re also incorrect.

True re-bracketing from Medieval times

The misalignment of boundaries in a word can go both ways. That is, the n may be added or lost. Following are some examples of both:

  • a naddre or a nadder (“venomous snake”) became an adder
  • a napperon or a napron (“doily”) became an apron
  • a nauger (“boring tool”) became an auger
  • a noumpere (“person selected to apply rules”) became an oumpere and then an umpire
  • a nuncle (“uncle”) became an uncle
  • an ewte (“salamander”) became a newt
  • an eke name (“additional name”) became a neke name and then a nickname

Many of these examples occurred before printing, literacy, or dictionaries existed or were common. Someone had to decide where to split the sounds in print. Once that was done, the earlier forms disappeared from use.

Re-bracketing in modern times

The English word helicopter might seem to be bracketed as heli and copter, but that would be wrong. The actual bracketing is helico (Greek heliko-, “spiral”) and pter (Greek pterōn, “one with wings”, as in pterodactyl).

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