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For some reason, I’ve never worn an apron. For many – mainly bakers, bakers and pastry chefs – an apron is a necessity, a sure-fire protection against stray spills, stains and unpredictable messes that have the potential to assault your clothes. This is a prerequisite to secure before engaging in a culinary exercise in the kitchen. For these people, an apron is a non-negotiable. For me, it’s a choice, and one I choose to ignore. (I got an apron for Christmas a few years ago, wore it that day while cooking Christmas dinner and never used it again).
A few summers ago, a former co-worker shared a fun etymological fact with me, thinking I’d appreciate it as a grammar (a term I think I just made up) and foodie. He was right, I liked it.
He told me that once upon a time, the apron was designed in order to ensure that communal kitchen detritus was not strewn haphazardly over expensive clothes and accessories. Also, he said, quite fascinatingly, that the original nomenclature was actually “napron”.
As time passed and people casually referred to “a napron”, the terminology got skewed, the spacing shifted, and the pronunciation changed, along with the word itself. . The “n” broke away from the “-apron” and instead joined the indefinite article “a” – resulting in what we today call “an apron”. The rest is history.
It was definitely a funny anecdote, but years later I wondered if the story was…real? Or what if it was a made-up little story that evokes a “clean” cool and a slight smirk? I looked in the history of the word to find out.
According to the Look and Learn Historical Picture and Photograph Archive, “In Old English the words orange, adder, and apron all began with the letter n, and were therefore spelled narenge, nadder, and napron.” Napron comes from the French word doily, which is an iteration of “tablecloth” or “a bit of cloth”. This word is also the root of nap-kin, which also means “little cloth”.
As grammar and phonetics evolved over time, words that originally started with “n” were changed and adjusted. Eventually they lost their “n” and whatever the second letter – which in 99% of cases was a vowel – became the first. This phenomenon, according to Linguistic Dataset and Translation Producer E2F, is called erroneous splitting, misdividing, redividing, or cropping. Meanwhile, Merriam-Webster calls it false division or bad division. (there is something meta in the fact that this etymological device has a multitude of different names).
This does not always apply to words that begin with “n” with a second letter vowel. It can also extend to any word that is changed in some way over time, such as ham-burger, which used to be hamburg-er. However, at some point these words in their new form are, at least for a period of time, cemented into our everyday language. As Mental Floss notes, by the 1600s the “n” had effectively and largely been dropped, resulting in what we still consider “an apron” today.
Regardless of the nomenclature, an apron can be a widely used kitchen garment. Maybe wear one the next time you make my classic (albeit incredibly crispy) Chicken Parmesan? Or maybe you could put one on before having an entire Italian-themed feast? Use it to prevent splattering of delicious sauces like salmoriglio or just plain red sauce. Protect your clothes while doing my signature tetrazzini. And it’s a must when tackling chicken with a creamy tomato sauce.