M & N

—So that’s NIA…


—No, N.

—M, ok.

—No, N.

—Yeah, that’s what I said, M.

—It’s N, n for nuisance.

Anyone who has the great misfortune to have a name beginning with m or n understands the frustration of having to spell their name. The worst part is probably having to think up of a word beginning with that letter as an example:

—It’s M for… uh,… malleable?

—Malleable!? How do you spell that?



No, M, M for…

Why do n and m have to be so similar? They seem to have very separate origins, so the fact that they look and sound so similar may just be a coincidence, as may be the fact that they’re placed next to each other in the alphabet. But they do seem to be very closely associated with each other. They sound almost the same, and look very similar. A lower-case m, in most fonts, looks just like two n‘s side-by-side. Which makes sense to me, as the sound of an m is usually a little bit longer than that of an n. I suppose they exist because they represent two sounds which are similar but distinct, and are therefore best represented by similar but distinct letters.

Perhaps what’s most interesting about n and m is that if you turn them upside down, you get u and w (depending on your handwriting, of course), two words that are also closely connected. That’s evident from their names, but doesn’t w usually look like a double v, rather than a double u? Yes, but if you look at ancient-Roman writing, you’ll notice a lot more v‘s than in modern English. In Classical Latin, the w sound was represented by the letter v, with not a u in sight. This is why in 1976 people would ask each other if they’d seen I Clavdivs on TV the night before.

Over time though, the sound associated with v morphed into what we would recognise as its sound in modern English. Around the same time, the sound we’d now associate with u began to emerge as a separate entity, and the three different symbols u, v and w began to be used more commonly. Because of the similarities between these three it’s perhaps not so strange that w is called double u. We can still see links between v an w in other languages such as German, where the letter w is often pronounced like v in English, hence why it looks like a double v.

At least if your name begins with W no-one will get confused.


5 thoughts on “M & N

  1. […] Lieutenant: this also comes directly from French, and literally means placeholder (lieu is French for place, and tenant for taking/holding). Consider how we also use lieu and tenant in English. We can use the phrase in lieu of in lieu of instead of or in place of, and a tenant was originally someone who held land. Lieutenant was originally a general term for a second-in-command, who would take the place of a superior. The word is pronounced quite differently in American and British English. In American English, it sounds like lootenant, whereas in British English, it’s pronounced leftenant. This may be due to the Old French variant spelling of lieu, luef. Or, it may be a result of the fact that in Latin, a lingua franca when the word came into use, the letter V was used to represent both U and V. […]


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