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