A recent post entitled “Oddments on the blog The Task at Hand led me to comment there that “the obsolete term oddwoman once meant ‘a female umpire; an arbitress.’ I explained the semantics by pointing out that when two parties are having a dispute, it takes a third person to act as umpire. Three, of course, is an odd number, one more than the two of the disputing pair. It so happens that the English word umpire expresses the same concept, but phonetic changes have obscured the connection. What is now the phrase an umpire was once a noumpere. The change occurred after English speakers started segmenting the phrase incorrectly, as if the n at the beginning of noumpere were instead the ending of the indefinite article an. For something comparable, imagine that people today began turning a needle into an eedle. That may seem strange, but the fact that a noumpere became an umpire shows that such reinterpretations do happen.

As for the noun noumpere, English took it from Old French nonper, a compound of non ‘not’ and Old French per, whose modern form pair English speakers recognize because that word has passed into English as well. The Latin original, which Spanish has inherited, was par, and it meant ‘equal.’ From that meaning came the arithmetical sense of ‘a twosome of “equal” (i.e. similar) things.’

While we’re on the subject of odds and evens, notice that Spanish par in the arithmetical sense of ‘even’ has as its opposite impar ‘odd.’ Spanish used to have the synonymous phrase non par, with the old Latin-style form of no, but modern Spanish has simplified that to non, thereby keeping the phrase’s obsolete word and dropping the one that is still current. As odd as that may seem, the result is that non means the same as impar. The expression de nones means ‘without a partner,’ and with reference to a person andar de nones means ‘not to have a fixed occupation or position; to be at loose ends.’

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. georgettesullins
    Mar 28, 2013 @ 17:25:11

    I just like those two words “nones” and “impares”. They make perfect sense to me over odds/evens. Interesting connection to “umpire.”


  2. Juan Luis Calbarro
    Mar 28, 2013 @ 17:57:43

    Interesting as always. The same words appear in the name of a Spanish popular game, pares o nones, which two people will play to let hazard decide who of them wins. They hide their right hands behind their backs, choose pares or nones aloud and then, on the count of three, they simultaneously show a number of fingers each. Whether the sum of fingers is divisible by two or not, the one who predicted it wins.

    By the way, the popular reinterpretations of the a noumpere/an umpire kind appear in Spanish too. Today, *un arradio instead of una radio and *un amoto for una moto are reprehensible but frequent vulgarisms, easily explained by the -o ending of the apocopic forms of these feminine words (radiodifusión and motocicleta), mistaken as masculine endings. ¡Saludos!


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 28, 2013 @ 20:18:54

      Thanks for describing the game pares o nones. I wonder if having played that game as children gives Spanish speakers a better sense of odd and even numbers than English speakers have on average.

      And thanks especially for your great examples in current Spanish of phrase reinterpretations that are partially prompted by something that English lacks, namely masculine and feminine gender for inanimate objects.


  3. shoreacres
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 06:21:05

    I was interested in the segmentation of words. It made me wonder if the process takes places in the other direction, too. For example: was “another” ever “an other”? It makes sense.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Mar 30, 2013 @ 07:35:59

      Yes, another was originally another. More recently, some speakers have split the compound up again, but with the n separated from the end of the article and moved to the beginning of the adjective: a nother. For those speakers, the reconstituted nother has taken on a life of its own in statements like “That’s a whole nother story.”

      You can find a whole nother discussion of that at:


  4. kathryningrid
    Apr 03, 2013 @ 12:22:39

    While I freely confess that my designation as an odd woman is quite differently derived than this one, I still find the etymology fascinating!


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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