Q: I heard you on WNYC the other day via the Web. (I’m in the Midwest – fairly close to your Iowa roots – not in New York City.) Anyway, here’s my question: Can you comment on “nother,” as in “That’s a whole nother ball game.” There is no such word, right?
A: My theory is that the phrase “whole nother” is a conflation of “whole other” and “another.” It has also been suggested that “nother” reflects a misunderstanding of the word “another” as two words: “a … nother.”
But this may be not such a “misunderstanding” after all. “Another” was originally two words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary: “an other (often a nother).”
Recorded usages go back to the early 1200s. Here’s a quotation from Chaucer’s poem Anelyda and Arcyte (about 1374): “And sawe a nothere ladye proude and nuwe.”
Until long into the 17th century, “nother” was a common pronoun and adjective meaning “a second or other; a different one,” the OED says. Here’s a quotation from 1608: “To establish true religion in one kingdome, to confirme it in a nother.”
This use of “nother,” according to the OED, is largely obsolete today and survives only as a colloquialism in the United States, where it’s commonly used with “whole.”
The dictionary lists these citations: “I have to grade a whole nother set of themes” (1963); “I’m in a whole nother space” (1977); and “But ‘tekkies’? It seems too much like ‘Trekkies,’ which invokes a whole ‘nother set of connotations” (1993).
Thanks for an interesting (or “a ninteresting”?) question!