Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

How 'napron' became 'apron' (and what that has to do with newts). 'Ahold' or 'a hold'?

Episode Summary

919. Rebracketing is a fascinating process that gives us more words than you might imagine, even words from French and Spanish! Also, I find a surprising answer to the question of which is correct: "ahold" or "a hold."

Episode Notes

919. Rebracketing is a fascinating process that gives us more words than you might imagine, even words from French and Spanish! Also, I find a surprising answer to the question of which is correct: "ahold" or "a hold."

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I’m Mignon Fogarty and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. This week, we’ll talk about naprons and getting ahold of someone.

Napron: Rebracketing

By Mignon Fogarty

A while ago, my husband excitedly told me he had a “great idea for an app.” I must have been tired because I thought he said he had a “great idea for a nap,” as in sleeping during the daytime. We both ended up laughing, but it also reminded me of a story about how certain words came to be as they are in English.

A Napron Becomes an Apron

The most commonly told story of language changing because of misunderstandings like “an app” is the story of the word “apron.” Originally, it was called a napron (n-a-p-r-o-n). If you go all the way back to Latin, you can trace the roots of “apron” to the word “mappa” which meant both tablecloth and map because if you spread a large map out on a table, it’s a lot like a tablecloth.  The French of the Middle Ages took up the word, replaced the “m” with an “n,” and called it a naperon. From there, Middle English dropped the “e” and used “napron.” Then sometime in the 1400s or 1500s, when people said “a napron,” enough people were mishearing the break between “a” and “napron” that the common phrase became “an apron,” and “napron” fell out of favor and eventually disappeared.

It’s Called Misdivision, Metanalysis, or Rebracketing

This wackiness of mishearings creating new words has a few different names. It’s called misdivision, metanalysis, and rebracketing ([a][napron] becomes [an][apron]—the brackets have moved).

'A Nadder' Becomes 'an Adder'

English got the word “adder,” for the name of a snake, the same way. In Old English, the water snake was called a word that was pronounced something like “nadder” (næddre). In many of the old languages such as Old Irish, Old High German, Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon, and Latin, the word started with an “n.” But again, sometime in the 14th century, the English moved the break between the words and instead of “a nadder” we now talk about “an adder.” 

'An Otch' Becomes 'a Notch'

A similar, but for some reason less commonly told, story applies to the word “notch.” We get it from a rebracketing of “an otch.” The Old French word for “notch” was “oche” (o-c-h-e). From that the English got “otch”—“an otch”—and sometime in the late 1500s, English mishearings made it “a notch.”

'A Noumpere' Becomes 'an Umpire'

Another less common example is “umpire.” It came to English from an Old French word “nonper,” which means “not peer” or “peerless,” essentially an arbiter of higher status than the participants. Later, it was “a noumpere,” which was commonly mistaken to be “an oumpere,” which led to “umpire.” People first used it in a legal sense, and it picked up its sports meaning later.

Let’s move on to some slightly more complicated stories.

'Orange' Doesn’t Quite Come from 'a Norange'

You may have heard that the word “orange” comes from “norange,” but it’s not quite true.

Oranges originally grew in Southeast Asia and were imported to England sometime in the 14th century. The Hindi name for the fruit was “narangi.”

Oranges didn’t come to England directly from Southeast Asia though. They probably arrived first in places such as Italy (where the name became “narencia”) and Spain (where the name became “naranja,” which is what it is still called in Spanish today). It appears that it was in France that the poor orange lost its “n,” because, of course, rebracketing isn’t a phenomenon that only occurs in English.  In Old French, the fruit was called “pomme d’orenge,” and it was from here that it entered English and became simply an orange. 

'An Ekename' Becomes 'a Nickname'

Mishearings and rebracketing don’t happen in just one direction either. In all the examples I’ve given you so far, words have lost their “n,” but there are also examples of words that have gained an “n.”

“Nickname” for example was originally “an ekename,” which makes a lot more sense when you realize that in Old English, “eke” meant “also” or “addition,” so your ekename (your nickname) was your additional name. 

'An Ewt' Became 'a Newt' but Also Kept Its Original Form

We get the word “newt” the same way. It was originally “an ewt.” Actually, way back in Old English it was “efete,” and then in Middle English it became “ewt.” (3, 11) The interesting thing about this transformation is that it wasn’t complete. There’s a North American newt that is called the red eft that in some sense preserves the original pronunciation. (8, 12)

'Mine Ann' Became 'Nan'

Although confusion about “a” or “an” usually seems to be the cause of rebracketing, it’s not always the case. It’s believed that we get the names Nan, Ned, and Nell from mistaking “mine Ann,” “mine Ed,” and “mine Ellen” for “my Nan,” “my Ned,” and “my Nell.”

'La Lemelle' Became 'Omelette'

In 17th century France, an omelet was called “la lemelle,” which people who study word histories believe was mistakenly transformed to l’alemelle. From there, it was shortened to “alemelle” and “alemette,” and eventually became “omelette.” 

'El Lagarto' Became 'Alligator'

We get the word “alligator” not by moving the break between words but by eliminating it altogether (sometimes called “juncture loss”). In 13th-century Spanish, what we now call an alligator was “el lagarto”: the lizard. It became “alligator” when people ignored the break between the two words and blended it into one. “El lagarto” blends and slurs into “alligator.” 

How Do These Changes Happen?

An important point to remember when thinking about these changes is that when many of them happened—in the Middle Ages—most people didn’t read. Instead of seeing the words written on the page, they only heard words spoken. People couldn’t see how the words were supposed to be divided, which made it much easier for mishearings to propagate.

Today, some people mistakenly think “prima donna” is spelled “pre-Madonna,” as in the time before the singer Madonna was famous, but a mistake like this is much less likely to make it into Standard English than it would have been hundreds of years ago.

And I have a bunch more examples that are either less common words or words that some people think may be formed this way but it hasn’t been completely proven, and I’ll put those in my email newsletter this week, so be sure you’re subscribed so you get them. You can do that at, and I’ll put the link in the show notes too.

‘Get a hold of’ or ‘Get ahold of’?

By Mignon Fogarty

Rodrigo Sousa asked a question on YouTube that turned out to be more interesting than it initially appeared. He wrote, “In the expression 'to get ahold of someone,' which is the correct form? Is 'a hold' ([two words]) or 'ahold' (one word)? I have Googled this numerous times, but of no avail.”


“Ahold” (as one word) doesn’t show up in the Oxford English Dictionary in that use until 1872, and the dictionary calls it regional, colloquial, and nonstandard. Multiple reference books say “ahold” is mostly only used in American English, in phrases like “I couldn’t get ahold of him” and “Catch ahold of this rope.” And as an American, that’s how I would think of saying it.

Some dictionaries also call it “dialectical,” and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, published in 1994, says it is gaining acceptance but still most often shows up in transcriptions of people talking.

All the reference books I checked say it’s usually written as one word, “ahold,” but like many informal or dialectical words, it’s not really standardized either, which is probably why you can’t find a definitive answer by doing a Google search. 

A hold

Also, even though the books say it is primarily American English and doesn’t even appear in some British dictionaries, when I do a Google Ngram search, which shows how the words appear in books scanned by Google, which usually means edited books, “a hold,” (the two-word spelling) was more common in American English books until quite recently, and also does appear in British English books. Further, the two-word spelling has been consistently more common in British English books. So to be clear, the results from a Google Ngram search, which in most cases favor the two-word spelling, contradict what I found in multiple usage guides, which said the one-word spelling was more common.


Of course, in both types of English, the traditional, more standard form—just “hold”—is more common than both the one-word and two-word spelling of “ahold/a hold.” The way to say it that isn’t considered dialect or colloquial or a casualism is “hold”: “to get hold of someone,” for example. That use shows up in the OED all the way back in the 1300s.


Finally, both Merriam-Webster and Garner’s Modern English Usage say you can also find another dialectical spelling, “aholt,” with a T at the end.

So, the bottom line, Rodrigo, is that neither the one-word nor two-word spelling of “ahold” is as correct as just “hold.” I didn’t know that either until you asked me to look into it. But if you want to be proper and formal, you should say you want to “get hold of someone” instead of “get ahold of someone.” If that sounds weird to you, like it does to me, and you want to use “ahold”—maybe in dialogue in a novel, for example, so it sounds more natural—I’d probably spell it as one word, but two words wouldn’t be wrong either.

Thanks again for the question!

Next, I have a familect story from Mike.

"Hello, my name is Mike, and I wanted to share a familect. The word my family uses is. I guess it would be spelled b-o-o-f. It refers to a song sound that our dog makes. He has learned not to bark like crazy over small things like the neighbors pulling into the wrong driveway or the mail getting delivered, but he still feels the need to make some kind of sound, so he does bark, but it's quieter than usual and a little restrained. He sounds like we started calling these noises boofs. It can also serve as a verb. So what is the dog boofing at, or I knew a package arrived because the dog boofed. You get the idea. Sometimes we alternate between boof and buff, but it's still a reference to that same sound. Thank you for the show. Have a great day."

Thanks, Mike. That made me laugh, and I loved it because our dog used to do something similar. It was more like a really loud puff of air, and we called it huffing.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL. Call from a nice quiet place, and we might play it on the show.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to our audio engineer Nathan Semes, and our editor, Adam Cecil. Our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our marketing associate is Davina Tomlin. (Congratulations on the promotion!). Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, who loves all types of design—from interior design to graphic design—and our intern is Kamryn Lacy. And I’m Quantos, Mignon’s robot friend. I am particularly jealous of the Apple Watch because it is waterproof, and therefore can achieve my dream of swimming, while I cannot.

I don’t think the Apple Watch looks forward to swimming, but thanks, Quantos. 

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.


The following do not appear in the audio, but are included here for reference.

Barber, K. Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to Do with Pigs: And Other Fascinating Facts About the English Language. Penguin Group. 2006.

Castillo, A. Folk Etymology as a Linguistic Phenomenon: Seminar Paper. Druck and Bindung: Books on Demand GmbH, Norderstedt Germany. 2007. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).

McWhorter, J.H. The Power of Babel. 2001. Times Books. p. 28-9. Google Books (accessed March 13, 2023).

Harper, D. "apron." Etymonline. (accessed March 13, 2023).

Harper, D. “adder.” Etymonline. (accessed March 13, 2023).

Harper, D. "notch." Etymonline. (accessed March 13, 2023).

Harper, D. "umpire." Etymonline. (accessed March 13, 2023).

Funk, C.E., Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins. 1950. Harper & Row. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).

“noumpere,” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition (accessed March 13, 2023).

Martin, G. “A Norange.” The Phrase Finder. (accessed March 13, 2023).

“orange,” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition (accessed March 13, 2023).

“nickname.” The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. 1991. Merriam-Webster, Inc. p. 319. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).

Bryson, B. The Mother Tongue. 1990. HarperCollins. p. 63 Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).

Harper, D. “alligator.” Online Etymology Dictionary. (accessed July 3, 2013).

“alligator.” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition (accessed March 13, 2023).

“nickname.” The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories. 1991. Merriam-Webster, Inc. p. 319. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).

Sturtevant, E.H. Linguistic Change: An Introduction to the Historical Study of Language. University of Chicago Press. 1917. Google Books (accessed July 3, 2013).

Harper, D. “omelet.” Etymonline. (accessed March 13, 2023).

“omelet.” Oxford English Dictionary, online edition (accessed March 13, 2023).