nother, nuther

OK, here’s a whole nother one. Or is that a whole nuther one?

Well, those who say it don’t so often write it. And in part that’s because the moment they go to set it down – and perhaps well before that – they are aware that it’s “wrong.”

Oops. Did I use scare quotes? I did. Yes, yes, we know, another is from an plus other – we write it as one word, just as we don’t with asingle, only sometimes do with anymore, and never ever ever do with alot. (Well, hardly ever.) But anyone who wants to get all high-horsey about how this means that it absolutely must be split as an other should look out, lest their high horse be buzzed by Ned in his orange gyrocopter.

By who in his what, now? Well, if the stork brings babies, Ned in his orange gyrocopter brings lessons in historical word redivision. The lesson he teaches is that we are much more attentive to how words seem to divide on the basis of sound patterns than we are to their actual historical divisions.

That gyrocopter is a prime example. The word gyrocopter is (obviously) from gyro plus copter, and we know what both of those things are. But many of us don’t know that helicopter, from which we get copter, is not made from heliplus copter; it’s from helico (i.e., helical, which means spiral) plus pter (Greek for ‘wing’ – a pterodactyl is literally a ‘wing-finger’). Splitting helicopter at pter is illegal in English phonology. But even in cases where a split is allowable, we don’t always go with history; consider chocoholic, which blends chocolate (historically a one-piece word) with alcohol (where the historical divide is after al, which means ‘the’ in the Arabic source).

And then there’s Ned. Ned, like many Neds, is officially Edward. There was a time in the history of English when we would say mine rather than my before vowels, just as we say an rather than a, and mine Edward (a way of addressing an Edward with whom one is familiar), shortened to mine Ed, became my Ned – at first probably consciously, in a jokey way, but later on not so much. That happened because even though mine and Ed are two words, phonologically we tend to want a consonant at the start of a syllable more than at the end of one. So “my Ned.”

However, we are also often aware of that habit, and we mentally correct for it – and sometimes overcorrect for it. That’s why a napron became an apron, a nadder became an adder, and a norange became an orange. (And the adjective orange in its turn came from the noun.)

So we have plenty of historical precedent for shifting word divisions. Indeed, if the word other had become nother, we would have a justification for that. And in fact for some people at some times, it did. There’s a goodly historical record of its use stretching back to the 1300s. But it never took over from other, and over time it came to be associated with nonstandard varieties of English – regional dialects, the speech of people who had neither the money nor the standing to learn the kind of English that gets you into marble hallways.

It also came increasingly to be used in just one context: a whole nother. Every nother place we might use it (any nother dog, the nother shoe, a distinctly nother place, a – now that you mention it – nother reason), we use other. (And, in truth, we also use a whole other more than a whole nother.) 

And, yes, because it’s officially “wrong,” it’s considered “uneducated” even though many people with plenty of education use it… and so some writers have gotten into the habit of using what’s called “eye dialect” when setting it down in the mouths of fictional characters: spelling it more phonetically with the imputation that the speaker would spell it thus (or, to put that in eye dialect as though some yokel were saying it, “spellin’ it moar foneticly with thee impewtashun that thuh speeker wud spel it thuss”). Which means nuther, as in a whole nuther.

And, I suppose, fair game. I have it on good authority that plenty of people grew up spelling it that way without negative imputation. After all, nother looks like it rhymes with bother. (But on the other hand, nuther doesn’t rhyme with Luther.) This is all good reason to be skittish about putting it down on paper – English spelling is a whole nother thing.

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