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English, like all languages,
is a messy business.
You can be uncouth but not couth.
You can be ruthless,
but good luck trying to show somebody
that you have ruth
unless you happen to be married
to someone named Ruth.
It's bad to be unkempt
but impossible to be kempt,
or sheveled as opposed to disheveled.
There are other things
that make no more sense than those
but that seem normal now
because the sands of time
have buried where they came from.
For example, did you ever wonder
why a nickname for Edward is Ned?
Where'd the N come from?
It's the same with Nellie for Ellen.
Afterall, if someone's name is Ethan,
we don't nickname him Nethan,
nor do we call our favorite Maria, Nmaria.
In fact, if anyone did,
our primary urge would be to either scold them
or gently hide them away
until the company had departed.
All these nicknames trace back to a mistake,
although, a perfectly understandable one.
In fact, even the word nickname is weird.
What's so "nick" about a nickname?
Is it that it's a name that has a nick in it?
Let's face it, not likely.
Actually, in Old English, the word was ekename,
and eke meant also or other.
You can see eke still used
in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in a sentence like,
"Whan Zephyrus eek with his sweete breeth,"
which meant,
"When Zephyr also with his sweet breath."
Ekename meant "also name."
What happened was that when people said, "an ekename,"
it could sound like they were saying,
"a nekename,"
and after a while,
so many people were hearing it that way
that they started saying,
"That's my nickname,"
instead of, "That's my ekename."
Now, the word had a stray n at the front
that started as a mistake,
but from now on was what the word really was.
It was rather as if you had gum
on the bottom of your shoe
and stepped on a leaf,
dragged that leaf along for the rest of your life,
were buried wearing that shoe
and went to heaven in it
to spend eternity wedded to that stray, worn-out leaf.
Ekename picked up an n and never let it go.
The same thing happened with other words.
Old English speakers cut otches into wood.
But after centuries of being asked
to cut an otch into something,
it was easy to think you were cutting a notch instead,
and pretty soon you were.
In a world where almost no one could read,
it was easier for what people heard
to become, after a while,
what it started to actually be.
Here's where the Ned-style nicknames come in.
Old English was more like German
than our English is now,
and just as in German, my is mein,
in Old English, my was meen.
You would say meen book,
actually boke in Old English,
or meen cat.
And just as today,
we might refer to our child
as my Dahlia
or my Laura,
in Old English, they would say, "Meen Ed".
That is mein Ed,
mein Ellie.
You see where this is going.
As time passed, meen morphed
into the my we know today.
That meant that when people said, "Mein Ed,"
it sounded like they were saying my Ned.
That is, it sounded like whenever someone
referred to Edward affectionately,
they said Ned instead of Ed.
Behold, the birth of a nickname!
Or an ekename.
Hence, also Nellie for Ellen
and Nan for Ann,
and even in the old days, Nabby for Abigal.
President John Adam's wife Abigail's nickname was Nabby.
All sorts of words are like this.
Old English speakers wore naprons,
but a napron sounds like an apron,
and that gave birth to a word apron
that no one in Beowulf would have recognized.
Umpire started as numpires, too.
If all of this sounds like something sloppy
that we modern people would never do,
then think about something you hear all the time
and probably say,
"A whole nother."
What's nother?
We have the word another, of course,
but it's composed of an and other,
or so we thought.
Yet, when we slide whole into the middle,
we don't say, "a whole other,"
we clip that n off of the an
and stick it to other
and create a new word, nother.
For a long time, nobody was writing
these sort of things down
or putting them in a dictionary,
but that's only because writing
is more codified now than it was 1,000 years ago.
So, when you see a weird word,
remember that there might be
a whole nother side to the story.
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【TED-Ed】Birth of a nickname - John McWhorter

153446 Folder Collection
Halu Hsieh published on December 7, 2013
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