Word Origin & History
in nickname, newt, and British dial. naunt, the -n- belongs to a preceding indefinite article an or possessive pronoun mine. Other examples of this from M.E. manuscripts include a neilond ("an island," early 13c.), a narawe ("an arrow," c.1400), a noke ("an oak," early 15c.), a nappyle ("an apple," early
15c.). The process also worked in surnames, from oblique cases of O.E. at "by, near," e.g. Nock/Nokes/Noaks from atten Oke "by the oak;" Nye from atten ye "near the lowland." The loss of it to a preceding a is more common: apron, auger, adder, umpire, humble pie, etc. The mathematical use of n for "an indefinite number" is first recorded 1852, in to the nth power.