Metanalysis

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Metanalysis is a technical term in linguistics. It labels the phenomenon in etymology when the boundaries of a word or phrase change.

  • In the history of English, this is perhaps most common when nouns that begin with 'n-' or a vowel are used with the indefinite article, so that 'a' + [n-noun] becomes heard ('re-analysed'] as 'an' + [n-less noun].

Some examples:

    • An apron used to be a napron. (This word is cognate with nappy - the garment put on babies. This is a form of napkin, now only used as the name of an item of table linen. Both napkin [nappy] and [n]apron are derived from napery, '[particularly linen] cloths used in households'. The form of this group of words has itself been corrupted, from the Latin mappa, 'a tablecloth'.)
    • The snake now called 'an adder' began its linguistic life as a nadder (nædre in Old English). Its meaning used to be more generally 'a[ny] snake' than its modern restriction to "the Common Viper (Pelias Berus)" (OED): in 1382, Wycliff's translation of Genesis iii. 4 has Satan in the form of a serpent tempting Eve in these words, "Forsothe the eddre seide to the woman" (the 1388 version replaces 'eddre' with 'serpent') (cited in OED.)
    • The fruit an orange used to be a norange, being derived from the Arabic nāranj, which is from the Persian nārang, from the Sanskrit nāraṅga.
    • A newt used to be called an ewt, or in some dialects an eft
    • Shakespeare has characters who refer to older people respectfully as Nuncle: this is a metanalysis of 'Mine Uncle'.
  • Another not uncommon form of metanalysis comes with the false identification of nouns ending in '-s' as plurals, resulting in the formation of a new singular form.
    • Pea, which comes from a Latin origin as pisum, later pisa, is first recorded in English as piosan, with several dialectal variations, in Old English. In time, the plural ending -an was lost. The usual form in early Middle English was pease. In later Middle English, this was metanalysed as the plural form, peas, of a singular 'pea' - which is the current state of the language, except in some odd corners such as the recipe pease pudding. There is a nursery rhyme:
Pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold,
Pease porridge in the pot, nine days old;
Some like it hot, some like it cold,
Some like it in the pot, nine days old.
  • Cherry is similarly derived from the French form cerise (still in use as a colour name) of a late Latin ceresia, ceresea, which is cognate with a Germanic chirsa, chersa, which gives modern German kirsch.
    • The slang name for the form of horse-drawn carriage known as 'a chaise' was metanalysed to a chay (or, with a hint at the French pronunciation of the first consonant sound, a shay).
    • Similarly in slang, a member of the Chinese nation was often known as 'a Chinee'.