What's common among an orange and an omelet... and an uncle and an umpire? Earlier all these words used to take the indefinite article "a", not "an".
They were coined by a process called false splitting. Let's take orange. The original word was Sanskrit naranga. By the time it reached English, the initial letter n had joined the article a, resulting in"an orange". The word for orange is still narangi in Hindi, naranja in Spanish, and naranj in Arabic.This false splitting caused what should have been "a napron" to become "an apron". The same process transformed "a nadder" into "an adder", and reshaped many other words.
The n went the other way too. "Mine uncle" was interpreted as "my nuncle"resulting in a synonym nuncle for uncle. The word newt was formed the same way: "an ewte" misdivided into "a newte".
Could false splitting turn "an apple" into "a napple" or "a nail" into"an ail" some day? Before the advent of printing, the language was primarily oral/aural, resulting in mishearing and misinterpreting. Today, spelling is mostly standardized, so chances of false splitting are slim, though not impossible.
This week we'll look at a few more examples of words formed by false splitting.
A nestling, especially a young falcon or hawk.
[By erroneous splitting of the original "a nyas" into "an eyas". From Latinnidus (nest), ultimately from the Indo-European root sed- (to sit) that is also the source of sit, chair, saddle, soot, sediment, cathedral, and tetrahedron.]
ouch or ouche
A brooch or buckle set with precious stones.
[From the misdivision of the phrase "a nouche" as "an ouche", from Anglo-Norman ouche (brooch). Ultimately from the Indo-European root ned- (to bind) that is also the source of node, noose, annex, and connect.]
[From the word anatomy taken as "an atomy". From Latin ana- (up) +tome (a cutting). Ultimately from the Indo-European root tem- (to cut) that is alto the source of tonsure, temple, epitome, and contemplate.]
Any of various boring tools resembling a corkscrew, used in carpentry, digging, etc.
[From the misdivision of "a nauger" as "an auger". Ultimately from the Indo-European root nobh- (navel) that is also the source of nave, navel, umbilical, omphaloskepsis (navel gazing), and Hindi nabhi (navel).]
1. The present or immediate occasion.
2. The time being.
[From the phrase "for the nonce", a misdivision of "for then anes", from for + then (the) + anes (one).]