I read that the cloth that painters and chefs wear, the one now called "apron", used to be called "napron". But then because of rebracketing, "a napron" became "an apron".

But my question is, why was this new word form ? Why was "an apron" more popular than "a napron", but for example, "a napkin" didn't become "an apkin" or "an alley" didn't become "a nalley"?

Thank you

  • 7
    The why-question is unanswerable, it is essentially that it just happened and we now observe this. There is no particular reason for it. Aug 11, 2022 at 16:10
  • 2
    Is there atleast any theories @jk-ReinstateMonica or others? Aug 11, 2022 at 16:15
  • 5
    What could such a theory say? "After 8/22/1543, all English speakers said an apron; before that time, they said a napron" Ridiculous? Sure. It crept up on the speakers over centuries. Hundreds of years, thousands of speakers, millions of sentences, billions of pronunciations. And nobody taking notes. All we can do, like geologists, is note that this came before that.
    – jlawler
    Aug 11, 2022 at 16:51
  • 4
    The work "nickname" evolved in the opposite direction.
    – dan04
    Aug 11, 2022 at 23:16
  • 3
    @dan04 also "newt"
    – Tristan
    Aug 12, 2022 at 10:07

1 Answer 1


The commenters are right that in linguistics it's often hard to say why exactly, but they're wrong to pretend there are no factors that influence the probability of rebracketing and reanalysis in general.

(There's a huge space between not 100% predictable and 0% predictable.)

For example: the frequency of the word, the frequency of the word in spoken language vs written language, the frequency of the word in certain phrases, the frequency of the subwords, the frequency of the subwords in the reanalysis, the frequency of related words...

This tends to be because of loans and roots that are opaque, either because they are forgotten, like the ick in ickname, or never understood, like the nap in naperon or the al in alcohol.

We can contrast this with the tens of thousands of other words that start with n- in English. For example, verbs are unlikely to occur mostly only after the indefinite article a/an. A noun like nonsense is unlikely to be rebracketed to onsense if speakers make the association between the initial subword and no, not, nought, none, non- etc.

There is chance that napkin could have been rebracketed, but napkin was formed from nape and -kin in English i.e. by English speakers at a time when English speakers understood what a nape is.

If I had to name one theory: language model. This is typical for overfitting to the model, or when there's no data for the input, or very skewed data for the input. For example, if you build an automatic speech recognition system, this problem can happen, and it's definitely non-random.

  • 4
    On the other hand an+other has been rebracketed to a+nother (as in ‘a whole nother’), despite the obvious association to other. It’s true, of course, that word frequency plays a role, and that the word needs to be usable in a context that is conducive to rebracketing – but given two words that fit the criteria equally, it is random whether neither, one or both of them will actually end up being rebracketed. Thus [n]orange and [n]apron were rebracketed, but noodle and nappy were not. Aug 13, 2022 at 9:05
  • 2
    I'd argue that 2 words never fit the criteria exactly equally. Anyway a bit of randomness is the case for many aspects of human language, nonetheless there's a huge space between not 100% predictable and 0% predictable. From observation (watching these predictive language technologies disrupt industries, and watching the reaction to a pandemic), many people can't wrap their heads around fuzziness, and find comfort in extremes with zero-nuance answers. Affects many linguists and also many engineers. Aug 13, 2022 at 9:21

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