For some reason, my ears were tuned to a whole nother frequency last week. That is, I heard the word nother everywhere I turned. Mostly it followed the word whole, though I’d swear someone said, “That’s an entire nother story” once, and someone else dismissed “a complete nother idea.” There’s even a children’s book series by someone suspiciously named Dr. Cuthbert Soup that includes A Whole Nother Story, Another Whole Nother Story, and No Other Story (Whole Nother Story).
I knew the word was resulting from splitting another with an adjective, and that—as, occasionally, with split infinitives—the splitting was necessary for clarity of meaning. Another whole frequency wouldn’t mean the same thing, and An entire another idea is repetitive. Even a whole other frequency doesn’t have quite the same nuance of meaning.
Being curious, I went looking for nother, and found a whole nother linguistic process that I’d been unaware of. Known as rebracketing, false splitting, or metanalysis, the separation of a compound word or modifier-noun clause along mistaken lines has a long and delightful history that, in English, has mostly to do with mistaken consonant-vowel linkages.
Another, for instance, comes from an + other. But if we wish to emphasize the otherness of a thing by inserting the word whole, which begins with a consonant sound, our oral habits stumble over the idea of an whole other, so we move the n over to the second syllable. Eventually, nother may become a word in the dictionary. That’s what happened to the Old English word naeddre, which was rebracketed from a naeddre to an adder, Britain’s only native poisonous snake. An ekename, or “little name,” was rebracketed sometime around the 16th century to become a nickname. The word newt was once spelled neute, but it never had any etymological link to neuter; instead, it was rebracketed from an eute.
Some of my favorites came over, rebracketed, from French. Ever wonder why things should be kept in apple-pie order? Surely we don’t want pastry and baked apples adorning our living rooms. Apparently the word originated from a nappe-pliées, meaning neatly folded linen. When the vowel sounds of the last syllables became transposed and the article and noun were rebracketed, you got apple pie. And the unrhymable orange was once norenge; mistaking the split in une norenge, the French themselves ended up with oranges and shared them across the Channel.
In the sort of rebracketing known as juncture loss, words like atone evolved from at one, used as a short form of make at one, or set at one, as in setting right or making whole again. Alligator found its way from the Spanish el lagardo, or “the lizard.”
Who knows where this tendency will lead us? Hundreds of years from now, people may be talking about meeting up in five nours, flavoring their soups with nerbs, or spotting neagles. Maybe they’ll start making burgers with ham—but that’s a whole nother sort of metanalysis, or maybe I mean a meta different nalysis.Return to Top