Q: Can you enlighten me about the origin of the (for me at least) strange “w” sound that begins the words “one” and “once”?
A: The short answer is that a regional pronunciation of “one” began spreading across England in the early 1400s and changed the way the term and some of its derivatives would normally have sounded.
In Old and Middle English, spellings generally reflected the way words were pronounced, but the spellings varied widely, depending on the practices of individual scribes.
To keep things simple, we’ll use the most common spellings in discussing the evolution of “one” and its derivative “once,” and we won’t differentiate between their various grammatical forms.
In Old English (spoken from roughly 450 to 1150), “one” was usually written as an, with the letter a pronounced like the “a” in the Modern English word “father.”
Here’s an Oxford English Dictionary example from the Wessex Gospels, written in the West Saxon dialect of Old English and dating back to the late 10th century:
“Hu ne becypað hig twegen spearwan to peninge, & an of ðam ne befylð on eorðan butan eowrun fæder” (“Are not two sparrows sold for a pening [an old coin], and not one of them falls to earth without your Father [knowing]?”). Matthew 10:19.
In Middle English (spoken from about 1150 to 1450), “one” was usually written as on, with the letter o pronounced like the long “o” in the Modern English “hope.”
An OED example from a Middle English poem written around 1250 refers to the bigamist Lamech in Genesis this way:
“For ai was rigt and kire bi-forn, / On man, on wif, til he was boren” (“For always it was right and pure before / One man, one wife, till he was born”). The Middle English Genesis and Exodus (1968), edited by Olof Arngart
The Middle English on was originally pronounced like the Modern English “own.” That old pronunciation has survived in several words derived from “one,” including “only” and “alone.”
But in the 1400s, a dialectal pronunciation of “one” appeared in southwestern and western England, with the “o” and “w” sounds reversed, resulting in a pronunciation like the Modern English “won.”
Technically, the long vowel o in the Middle English on acted like a diphthong. Emphasizing the beginning gave on an “own” pronunciation while emphasizing the end, as in the dialectal version, produced a sound like “won.
Historical linguists cite the use of won for on in late Middle English manuscripts as evidence of the dialectal pronunciation.
The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest won example, which we’ve expanded, was written sometime before 1450 in the dialect of Wiltshire in southwest England:
“won of hem þouȝt þat he nolde not spare for no fere to wete wherre þat maydenus body leyȝe hole ȝet þore” (“one of them thought that he would spare no fear to find out where the maiden’s body lay hidden”).
The passage is from a life of Ethelreda, an Anglo-Saxon saint, in Altenglische Legenden (1881), edited by Carl Horstmann.
The English theologian William Tyndale, who was born in Gloucestershire in the Southwest, also uses “won” for “one” in his early Modern English translation of the Bible in 1526:
“Alas Alas that gret cite Babilon that myghty cite: For at won houre is her iudgment come” (Revelation, 18:10).
The “won” pronunciation of on influenced the pronunciation of ones, the usual Middle English version of “once” and a few other words derived from the Middle English on, like “oneness,” “oneself,” and “onetime.”
Here’s an example of “once” spelled “wonce” in early Modern English. It’s from a 1599 report by Sir John Harington to Queen Elizabeth about a military campaign by the Earl of Essex against rebels in Ireland:
“The rebell wonce in Rorie O More shewed himselfe, withe about 500 foote and 40 horse, 2 myles from our campe.” From Nugæ Antiquæ (Ancient Nuggets), a 1775 collection of Harington’s papers, edited by Henry Harington, a descendant.
The “one” spelling appeared occasionally in Middle English, as in this expanded OED example from Ancrene Riwle, an anonymous guide for monastic women, written sometime before 1200:
“nule nout ure louerd he seið þe prophete: Þet o mon beo uor one þinge twien i demed” (“the prophet says Our Lord does not wish that a man be judged twice for one thing”).
However, a search of OED citations for the term suggests that “one” didn’t become common until the early Modern English of the 16th century.
Here’s an example from Richard Taverner’s 1539 translation of Erasmus’s annotated Latin proverbs: “One man no man. One man lefte alone and forsaken of all the rest, can do lyttell good.”
As for “once,” the earliest example for this spelling in the OED is from Tyndale’s 1526 Bible: “Five hondred brethren at once” (1 Corinthians 15:6).
But the dictionary’s citations indicate that the “once” spelling wasn’t common until the 17th century, as in this example from Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, a 1651 treatise on society and the state:
“The object of mans desire, is not to enjoy once onely, and for one instant of time; but to assure for ever, the way of his future desire.”
We suspect that the arrival of the printing press in England in the late 15th century and the spread of printing in the 16th and 17th helped lock in the “one” and “once” spellings before the “won” pronunciation was fully accepted.