Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, stop the count!
Q: Hi AWC, why do we say “first”, “second” and “third’?
A: To sell podiums.
Q: Haha, very funny. I meant, why don’t we say “oneth”, “twoth” or “threeth” like the rest of the numbers all do?
A: Good question.
Q: I thought so.
A: Is “because English is weird” a good enough answer?
Q: Not even slightly.
A: Ugh, okay. Well, how about “because words evolve at weird and different times throughout the history of the English language”?
Q: Well, that’s a bit better.
A: We’re talking about differences between cardinal and ordinal numbers here.
Q: If you say so.
A: The term “cardinal numbers” dates back to the 16th century and is named after the adjective “cardinal” – meaning pivotal or principal (e.g. “cardinal sins”). These are the main numbers that we count with in English – one, two, three, four, five… and so on.
Q: No, please go on.
A: Um. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven… Is that enough?
Q: Okay sure. And “ordinal numbers”?
A: This meaning came along at the same time. Ordinal numbers are adjectives that mark the place or position of something in an order or series. They take their cue from cardinal numbers to give us first, second, third, fourth and so on.
Q: More please.
A: Fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth, tenth and eleventh.
Q: Okay, so as I said, why do the first three ordinal numbers not match the others in form?
A: It’s all about timing.
Q: In what way?
A: By the time this ordinal system was established in the 1590s, there were already established words for “first”, “second” and “third”. They came into English through the side door and made themselves at home.
Q: The key to an evolving language is under the mat!
A: Haha, exactly.
Q: So, let’s do “first” first…
A: “First” came from the Old English “fyrst” meaning “foremost” or “before all others”. In fact, it started off being called “forma” – linked to “fore” (as in before) but this variation never survived.
Q: Okay, let’s do “second” second…
A: This one actually comes from Latin “secundus” (meaning “following or next in time or order”) via Old French and turned up around the end of the 13th century. It replaced using the word “other”, which had started getting confusing.
Q: Speaking of which, “second” actually has a few “other” meanings.
A: It sure does. The time measurement (60 seconds in a minute) turned up in the 14th century, while the verb “to second” (as in a duel or a political motion) arrived two centuries later.
Q: And what about “third”?
A: This one at least makes an attempt to sound like its cardinal number. In fact, with one of its many derivatives being the Proto-Germanic “thridja”, it even had the “THR-” beginning like “THREE”. Records confirm that it was actually written as “thrid” and not third right up until the 16th century!
Q: Thrilled to hear it. And it sounds like “thirteen” and “thirty” too.
A: That’s because those numbers also originate from similar “THR-” roots. Of course a “third” is also a division – and the only one in the top four numbers to retain its ordinal for such a purpose.
Q: Please explain.
A: Well, splitting for one would be a “whole”, splitting in two is a “half”, three is still a “third”, into four is “quarters” and then by the time we get to five, we’re back to the ordinals again with “fifths”, “sixths” and so on.
Q: English is weird…
A: We second that opinion.
If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!