Thursday, June 20, 2013


I don't know exactly why this one came up for me the other day. It just occurred to me that I have no idea where this word came from. It has that pronunciation link to empire and so to emperor, but is that really the background?

I am almost positive this has Roman roots, though. We shall see.


Roman roots, yes, but not of the kind I thought. It isn't a corruption of some ancient Roman term for an adjudicator. The English word was originally noumper, which came from the Old French nonper, (from Latin par--I told you Rome was involved)  which means "not even" or "not equal" --so, the one who arbitrates between two others, the non peer.

Umpire then, is one of those interesting mistake kind of words. It shares this particular mistake with words like adder (Old English n├Žddre)  and auger (Middle English nauger), because people hearing the phrase as " a noumpere" thought of it as  "an oumpere". This, in the linguistic game, is what is known as "faulty separation". Such diverse things as aprons, nicknames, and humble pie all suffer from the same sort of misapprehension.

Umpires weren't always about sports, though. Originally, the word comes from the legal world. In fact, it is still used in U.S. law today to refer to arbitrators in legal arbitration, largely in labor disputes. It came into sporting vernacular, or at least into printed mention, in 1719. The sport?
Michiel Sweerts' Wrestling Match, 1649




  1. Is copter, for helicopter, an instance of faulty separation? If the word were derived according to a proper division of helicopter’s components, it would be helic or helico or opter or pter, not that I’m suggesting any of these.

    Nice use of umpire here.

  2. I'm not sure. A good description of faulty separation is here. It seems to be more specifically about confusion between words following "a" and words following "an".

    But I do see helicopter listed as an example of the more general principle of rebracketing. To some extent, I suppose they may be interchangeable.

    Thanks for the cartoon.

  3. You may remember the do-zee-do video I posted in a comment some time back. I derive much of my wisdom and knowledge from Bugs Bunny.

  4. I do remember that video. I am sure I saw all the same cartoons growing up, but they aren't archived in my brain in the same way.

    Bugs is an interesting type, isn't he? I can't actually think of another character that combines his savvy and naivete, his ruthlessness and lack of real malice in quite the same way.

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  6. I have seen Bugs Bunny called a quintessential New Yorker, possibly Brooklynite. That would fit, wouldn't it? He combines the openness and optimism of his country with the street smarts of his city.

  7. Yes. Although I have to admit that the only real Brooklynite I know is a transplant from the Midwest via California.

  8. Bugs' pronunciation of "magic woids" at the beginning of that clip is Brooklynese, I think.

    Bugs Bunny is archived in my brain. Dr. Seuss, too.

  9. Likewise, with an eke name, I learned recently. I have an eke name! Kathy! (Also, Pumpkin, Cinderella, and K.)

  10. Eke! You have a lot more ekenames than I do, Pumpkin.