Heads I win, tails you ask Jesse Sheidlower.
Dear Word Detective: Do you know where the word “umpire” originated, and how? I think I know this one, but I’d like to find out if I’m right. — Karen De La Vergne, Anderson, Indiana.
You know, there’s something about the way you’ve phrased your question that makes me feel a bit like a cross between the Wizard of Oz and Monty Hall. Your faith in my ability to divine the right answer to your query is touching, yet I fear that you may be expecting a prize of some sort once we’re done. If so, I’m afraid you’re out of luck. I used to give away a cat for every question I answered, but now we’re down to just two (cats, not questions, God knows, I’ve got a pile of those you wouldn’t believe, except that since you all sent them to me, perhaps you would), both of whom (the cats) seem to be firmly bolted to the sofa.
Onward. The original form of “umpire” in English was the 14th century English word “noumpere,” from the French words for “not a peer,” and that takes some explaining. “Peer” in this sense means “equal,” or someone who has a stake in the matter at hand. Today we may think of umpires primarily as the beleaguered mediators of baseball games, but the original role of an “umpire” was to serve as an impartial arbitrator of legal disputes. This legal function still exists, although the umpires are usually called “arbitrators.” Naturally, the arbitrator, like the umpire in a baseball game, must be rigorously impartial and not a “peer,” or member of either team, for the process to work.
Now the curious thing about “noumpere” is that it only looks a little like “umpire.” It begins with an “n,” for example — where did that go? Well, it drifted, through a linguistic process called “metanalysis,” in which letters from one word migrate over time to a neighboring word. So “a noumpere” in the 14th century became “an umpere”in the 15th century and finally, by the early 17th century, “an umpire.” A similar metanalytic process transformed “a napron” (related to “napkin”) to our modern “an apron” and “a nadder” became that slithery menace, “an adder.”