NPG D5467; Sir Thomas Parkyns, 2nd Bt after Unknown artist

Sir Thomas Parkyns of Bunny (1713)
image: National Portrait Gallery






– in some sports: an official to whose decision all doubtful points are referred, and who sees that the rules are not broken
– a person who arbitrates between contesting parties





The Old and Middle French word spelt nonper, nomper, nompair, was composed of the negative prefix non- and per, or pair, meaning peer, equal. As an adjective, this word meant peerless, surpassing all others, but also, of a number, odd, and as a noun, it meant one who surpasses all others and an odd number. (In Modern French, an odd number is un nombre impair, as opposed to un nombre pair.)

In the 14th century, English borrowed this word as a noun spelt noumper, noumpere, etc., to denote a person chosen to arbitrate between contending parties, from both the idea of a higher authority “not equal” to them and that of a third party, an “odd number”.

Since the 15th century, the word has been used in law to denote specifically an ultimate arbitrator appointed or called upon to decide a matter submitted to arbitrators who cannot agree. For example, in the early 15th century, the English administrator and soldier Sir William Plumpton (1404-80) was involved in a dispute concerning land with Ralph, Earl of Westmorland, which was agreed to be referred to arbitrators. The agreement, dated 23d July 1435, contained the following:

If so be that the said arbitrators may not accord before the said feast of Allhalowes, then the said parties be [= by] the advise abovesaid are agreed to abide the award and ordinance in the matter abovesaid of an Noumper to be chosen be [= by] the said arbitrators, so that the said award and ordinance of the said Nowmper be made be [= by] the feast of the Nativity of our Lord then next comeing.

In this agreement, “an Noumper” is interesting because, more generally, as the initial n- was misunderstood in speech as belonging to the preceding indefinite article, forms such as owmpere and umpere appeared in the early 15th century. This is first recorded in The Marriage of the Sun, from Isopes Fabules (Aesop’s Fables), written around 1405-10 by the English poet John Lydgate (circa 1370-circa 1450):

(interlinear translation)
Among these owmperis was werre none ne stryf
   Among these umpires was neither war nor strife
But concludyd to accord, al beyng of assent,
   But concluded to accord, all being of assent [= all assenting],
That if so be that Phebus take a wyf
   That if so be that Phoebus take a wife
And procreacioun be unto hym sent,
   And procreation be unto him sent,
By hys lynage therth shuld be brent.
   By his lineage the earth should be burnt.

By the mid-16th century, the word had definitively lost its initial n-, and by the late 17th century, the spelling umpire had become established in general use. Its use in the world of sports is first recorded not long afterwards, in Προγυμνασματα [= Progymnasmata].—The Inn-Play; or, Cornish-Hugg Wrestler (2d edition – 1714), by Sir Thomas Parkyns (1662-1741), baronet, of Bunny Park, Nottinghamshire:

Rules and Conditions, which were to be observ’d and perform’d by all and every Gamester, who Wrestled for a Hat of twenty-two Shillings Price; a free Prize, which was given by Sir Thomas Parkyns of Bunny, Bart., for fifteen Years successively. The Gamesters which were allow’d to Wrestle for the aforesaid Prize, were to have it, if fairly won, according to the following Rules.
If any Differences shall happen concerning the Wrestling, they shall be determined by two Men, which shall be chosen by the most Voices of the Gamesters, before they begin to Wrestle; and in case they can’t decide such Differences, then they shall be referr’d solely to the Decision of the said Sir Thomas Parkyns as UMPIRE.

The loss of the initial n- by metanalysis, i.e. wrong division of the ensemble formed by the indefinite article and the noun it precedes, also explains words such as apron, from Old French naperon (Modern French napperon, table mat), and adder, from Old English næddre. The ending -ire of umpire can be compared to that of rampire, an archaic variant of rampart.

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