Monday, September 28, 2009

Why “an” umpire?

Ever wonder why we refer to ourselves as “an” umpire, instead of saying, “I am a umpire?”

The answer is found in the origins and development of the word. Originally umpire was noumpere, a Middle English word that means “arbiter” and derived from the Old French nonper (“not equal”). Sometime during the 15th century the indefinite article “a” was used in writing about “a” noumpere. Soon thereafter a linguistic shift called junctural metanalysis (sometimes referred to as simply “wrong division”) occurred and “a noumpere” morphed into “an oumpere.” This shift was basically due to the spoken language being the chief form of communication during that time. Today we say “an umpire” instead of “a numpire.”

But, hey. Whatever floats your boat, Mr. Numpire.


Anonymous said...

"An" is used before most words beginning with a vowel; "a" is used before most words beginning with a non-vowel. Seems simple.

Pete Reiser said...

Sure. However, the etymology is interesting.

Something less interesting is the choice between "a" and "an" before the word it procedes. For instance, "a" European, "a" union, "a" eulogy. Modern rules dictate that these words receive the article "a" because of the initial sound of the word. Words with the initial sound of "yoo" (and words that begin with ew or eu) receive the article a, and words that sound like a short u receive the article an. My understanding is that under modern construction "umpire" would receive the article an anyway.

Its just that ain't how it was decided by folks long ago.