Solvers of cross-word puzzles may sometimes wonder why newt and eft, such different words in appearance and sound, are apparently used interchangeably.
When is a newt an eft, they may ask. The answer is that a newt is an eft in the United States, sometimes, and in some sections of England, but the usual name of this curious little relative of the salamander is newt in both countries.
Actually even the names are one and the same. The ancient word was eff eta, in which the f was sometimes voiced and sometimes voiceless. When voiced, the spelling became changed to eveta.
Then, because the letters 7) and u were used interchangeably in writing, this word was often written eueta. The next change to ewte probably came about after the introduction of the letter w and through the fact that the combination ue (such as due) was usually pronounced like ew (dew).
At about that time also, just as with “nickname,” the n of an (in an ewte) was transferred in common speech to the word that followed, producing a newte, which eventually gave us newt.
While these changes were going on there were other lesser sections of England in which the original word was undergoing another modification. These were the sections in which the f of efeta was voiceless. In of the f is voiced; in often, voiceless.
In this speech the form of the word gradually changed into eft. For many years both newt and eft were used according to whim, many writers using both words to make sure that the reader would understand.
But gradually newt has become the more common form, eft becoming obsolescent.