In a Word: The Long-Suffering Umpire

Umpires predate baseball by two centuries, and the word ‘umpire’ once looked a lot different.

Umpire in blue uniform calls a strike

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today. 

Baseball season is underway, and as coronavirus vaccination rates continue to rise, many of us are excited to soon return to the stands to root root root for the home team. And for some, it will be a chance to scream at the umpire. 

The word umpire predates baseball by 250 years and found its beginnings outside of sport entirely. It traces its roots in the Old French legal term nonper, formed by the combination of non “not” and per “equal.” This made its way into Middle English in the 16th century as noumpere.  

A noumpere was an arbitrator, a person who was “not equal” (that is, disinterested) to opposing parties in a legal dispute. If two farmers claim ownership of the same hog, for example, they might call on a noumpere to resolve the dispute. 

However, this was during a time when most English speakers were illiterate, so their exposure to a word like noumpere would have been primarily through speech and not through writing. Having a general understanding of how English sentences are put together, when a noumpere was called for, many heard it as an oumpere and it was such a common misunderstanding that (disregarding the various spellings) an umpire became the standard. 

This type of misdivision of two words — linguists refer to it as metanalysis — isn’t uncommon. What we know today as an apron, for example, was once a naperon (it’s etymologically related to both map and napkin). In the other direction, the little lizard known as a newt was originally an ewt. Metanalysis also had a hand in molding ingot and orange, two words I’ve explored previously. 

Umpire began finding its way into sports in during the 18th century — in tennis, for instance. Baseball was invented in the 1840s, and the first recorded modern game of baseball occurred on October 6, 1845, with attorney William R. Wheaton serving as umpire. And fans have been complaining about bad calls ever since. 

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Umpire has relatively simple origins compared to a lot of words you’ve dissected here previously. One thing that’s often NOT simple is the umpire’s job, and often the unpopularity of it. Still, he’s more popular than a vampire!


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