“A napron” becoming “an apron” wasn’t an anomaly. This kind of rebracketing has happened again and again in our language history. Here are five similar examples:
- an ewt (salamander) / a newt
- an ekename (additional name) / a nickname
- an otch / a notch
- a naranj / an orange
- a naddre (type of snake) / an adder
These may seem like quaint misinterpretations from long ago. In reality, this kind of rebracketing is happening before our very eyes and ears, in spite of the fact that we rely less on an oral transfer of language. Our higher literacy rates seem to accelerate how we (sometimes intentionally) manipulate our language and, in turn, create strings of new words in the process.
Take for example the Middle English words all one or alone, meaning “one only” or “on one’s own.” When the word rebracketed to a-lone, a profusion of new vocabulary entered the English language, such as lone, lonely, and lonesome.
Consider the word helicopter. To most English speakers’ thinking, the two parts of the word are heli and copter. This is not correct. Coined in 1861, the etymology of the word originates from the Greek helico (spiral) and pter (with wings, as in pterodactyl). Nonetheless, we now have derivatives of this rebracketing, like helipad, heliport, and helidome. Copter, which wasn’t a word, suffix, or even slang before helicopter, gives us new combinations like gyrocopter, jetcopter, and quadcopter.
A more recent arrival is blog. The internet-era word came from the clever rebracketing of “weblog.” Its cousin, vlog, came from the words “video log.” From these newly-coined terms we get blogger, blogging, vlogger, and vlogging.
A popular rebracketing has occurred with the word alcoholic. The two parts of the word are alcohol (booze) and -ic (related to). Though –holic has no etymological history, per se, it is now a suffix with the definition of “being addicted to something,” such as shopaholic, chocoholic, and workaholic.
Finally, our beloved American hamburgers are a linguistic carnival of misinterpretations and rebracketing. If asked, many Americans would probably think the breakdown of the word hamburger (ignoring any cognitive dissonance) would be ham (meaning “not really ham”) and burger (a patty of meat or meat sandwich). From these misinterpretations, we get new words and food like a cheeseburger, double burger, and veggieburger.
The real meaning of hamburger is “a resident of the German town of Hamburg;” Hamburg + -er (resident of). Denizens of this burg gave us our meat sandwich progenitor, the Hamburg steak. When Germans arrived in America, their spicy Hamburg steaks were sold in restaurants, state fairs, and on food carts to industrial workers. Difficult to eat while standing or walking, the beef patty was sandwiched between two pieces of bread, and the hamburger was born. While there are numerous competing stories, it’s said that Louis’ Lunch, a small lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut, sold the first Hamburg steak sandwich around 1900.
And the rest is global history.
If you enjoyed this post, you may also be interested in how we unconsciously stack our adjectives, the anomaly of “The Big Bad Wolf,” or how Lewis Carroll gave us the first literary portmanteaux!
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