In the third grade, we guffawed about Little Johnny, who left out the P when reciting the alphabet because it was running down his leg. Those of us with more highbrow tastes in humor also found amusing his further adventures:
Teacher: Johnny, name two fruits that begin with the letter N.
Johnny: A napple and a norange.
But today, more than five decades later, I have learned that the ubiquitous classroom clown wasn’t such a dunce after all–just a few centuries behind the times.
While drinking my morning coffee, I was trying to find out how to watch the World Series without a television. After I located a few possible options, some paid, some free, my fancy lightly turned to thoughts of etymology. Specifically, I thought that umpire is an awfully strange word, gruff sounding, not quite like any other morpheme I could think of. So of course, I looked up the history of the word. The information that popped up from Google was just tantalizing enough to send me scurrying to the Online Etymology Dictionary, one of my few remaining guilty pleasures. And here’s what I found:
The word umpire first entered English in the mid-14th century as noumpere, from the Old French nonper, which meant “odd number” (from “not equal”) and was used to denote a third-person arbitrator in disputes. The initial N was lost within a hundred years because our lazy forbears in mangling the English tongue misheard a noumpere as an oumpere.
I awoke my sleeping husband, Pavel, to tell him the news. And then, on my way to the shower, I remembered Little Johnny. I suggested that this fascinating numpire situation was precisely the opposite of the old joke, which I had to tell him, because he was still in Czechoslovakia when it was making the rounds in the third-grade classrooms. As I gathered the supplies for my morning ablutions, I suddenly remembered that the Spanish word for orange is naranja! I was off and running–back to the etymology dictionary, of course.
My instincts were right; however, it was the French forbears who were lazy this time. The Sanskrit naranga-s (orange tree) became the Persian narang and then the Arabic naranj and hence to Old French. Perhaps, indeed, it was le petit Jean who misheard une narange, which thereby became since time immemorial (well, before the 13th century, anyway, when the word came to English) une orange.
Of course, Little Johnny is immortal, so I searched the web for an updated joke to end this post. Sadly, like the rest of the world, he has become a cynic and acquired a potty mouth, so my choices were limited. Here’s one of the few remaining G-rated quips from Little J:
Teacher: Make a sentence using the following words: defeat, deduct, defense, detail.
Johnny: De feet of de duck went over de fence before de tail.
Hmmm. Johnny may be a budding etymologist after all:
Fence (n.) early 14c., “action of defending, resistance; means of protection, fortification,” shortening of defens (see defense). The same pattern also yielded fend, fender; and obsolete fensive “defensive” (late 16c.). Spelling alternated between -c- and -s- in Middle English. Sense of “enclosure” is first recorded mid-15c. on notion of “that which serves as a defense.”
Happy (word-) hunting to all my faithful readers!
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