Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • 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. [To my sensitive husband. Love, 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, [speaking Middle English] in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in a sentence like, 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.

English, like all languages, is a messy business.

Subtitles and vocabulary

Operation of videos Adjust the video here to display the subtitles

B1 US TED-Ed nickname nother mein ned ed

【TED-Ed】Birth of a nickname - John McWhorter

  • 18850 982
    Halu Hsieh posted on 2020/04/09
Video vocabulary