Just say no?
Dear Word Detective: The word “nope,” which I use more often than Mrs. Higgenbottom would approve, raised my curiosity to the point of looking for its origins. I turned to your column, and nope, it wasn’t there. I looked in the Wiktionary site and it said “nope” is probably from “ope” which is a shortened form of some word I can’t remember how to spell right now, which is okay because I don’t believe it, anyway. “Nope” is derived from “no,” isn’t it, the hard consonant added to make it more emphatic? And when did it first appear? — B. L.
Good question. Incidentally, I’d have made a lousy primary school English teacher, because I’ve never really had any burning desire to correct other people’s grammar and usage. Ask me what word or form is commonly preferred, and I’ll be happy to tell you, but scribbling stern red ink on student essays is beyond my bailiwick. Dipping my toe in Geezer Pond, however, I must admit that if I were a teacher today and received papers written in “txt-speak,” I might well lose it. Of course, I’m probably not immune, and soon I’ll be getting queries from the cell folk about the origin of “j2luk” or “plez.” Oddly enough, neither of those inventions (meaning “just to let you know” and “please,” respectively) is listed in Wiktionary, which is an open-source dictionary modeled on Wikipedia’s write-it-yourself approach. Omg!
It took me a bit of puzzling to figure out where that connection to “ope” came from, since “nope” meaning “no” has nothing to do with any such word. But what Wiktionary does not make very clear is that there are actually several “nopes” in English. As a noun, one “nope” means “a blow to the head” (probably from the obsolete and mysterious English dialect word “nolp”). Another “nope” is a common English regional dialect term for the bird known as the bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula). This “nope” is thought to have arisen from “ope,” a variant of “alp,” another name for the bullfinch, through a process known as “metanalysis,” where one letter in a phrase (in this case, “an ope”) migrates to the other word (becoming “a nope”) The same linguistic process transformed the original “a napron” (from the Old French “naperon,” small tablecloth) into our familiar “an apron” several hundred years ago.
Our “nope” meaning “no” is, technically, an adverb, often used as an interjection, and is an American invention. Your hunch is, of course, absolutely right. This “nope” is simply “no” with a very emphatic (but linguistically meaningless) “p” sound stuck on the end, much as “p” is appended to “yeah” to produce the more abrupt and emphatic “yep.” The “p” in both cases is a signal to the listener that the matter is not up for discussion (“‘Have you been in Europe before?’ ‘Nope,’ she replied shortly,” 1918). The earliest citation for “nope” in print found so far is surprisingly recent, from 1888. But “nope” was almost certainly in common use long before that date, kept out of print as “improper colloquial usage” by the Mrs. Higgenbottoms of the day.