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shameless pleading

First, second, third.

Too bad. “Thrity” has a nice ring to it.

Dear Word Detective:  I have been wondering about this since grade school: Why do we say “first” and “second,” which seem totally unrelated to the words “one” and “two”? “Third” at least somewhat resembles “three.” And the rest – fourth, fifth, sixth, etc. – pretty much just add “th” to the number. So why don’t we say “oneth,” “twoth,” and maybe “threeth”? — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY

That’s a good question, and there seem to be a lot of people out there on the internet asking the same thing. Unfortunately, the answers they’re getting at places like Yahoo Answers are, shall we say, not quite right. My favorite one confidently (but loonily) explains that “In most competitions, there is the importance of the first three rankers. It is possible that the words, first, second and third were coined for the first three winners. One having rank four was never recognized for prize distribution. So no special word was coined for rank 4 and so on.” I guess you could call this the State Fair Pie Contest theory. Remember, kids, losers don’t get a special word!

“First,” “second,” “third,” “fourth” and so on are called “ordinal numbers,” terms defining a thing’s place in a series (as opposed to “cardinal numbers,” such as “one,” “two,” “three,” etc.). The word “ordinal” comes from the Latin “ordo,” meaning “row or series,” which also gave us “order.” Ordinals can be used as nouns, pronouns or adjectives, and can be written either as words (“third”) or as numerals with suffixes approximating the sound of the word (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, etc.).

The form of almost all English ordinals is regular, predictable and no mystery at all. Old English used the ending “tha” to form ordinals, which we retained in the form “th” (or “eth”) and use to cover everything from “fourth” to “five hundred billionth” and beyond. Just why the ordinals corresponding to “one,” “two” and “three” in English diverged from this pattern is unknown — stuff happens — but almost certainly had nothing to do with contests.

Our modern English word “first” was “fyrst” in Old English, and came from the Germanic root “furisto,” which was a superlative form of the root “fur,” meaning “before, preceding” (which also gave us “fore” and the prefix “for,” connoting “before” or “in front of”). So the sense of “first” was “absolutely before anything else.” As you might expect, “first” has acquired a range of extended meanings in various terms, such as “first aid” (medical aid delivered at the scene of injury) and “firsthand” (in “first person” experience, as opposed to “secondhand,” via another person).

To designate the thing that came immediately after the first thing, English originally simply used the word “other.” For obvious reasons, this use of “other” created confusion with all the, um, other uses of “other.” So around 1300, English borrowed “second” directly from French, which had derived it from the Latin “secundus,” meaning “following” or “next in a series” (also the source of our modern “sequel”).

“Third” came to us from the Germanic “thridda,” closely related to our “three,” which is why “third” and “three” seem similar. They’d be even more alike if a fairly common historical linguistic process called “metathesis” hadn’t reversed the “i” and “r” in “thrid” in the 16th century to make “third” (and led to the cardinals “thirteen,” “thirty,” etc., rather than “thridteen” or “thrity”).

Things are pretty straightforward from then on, with the exception of “eleventh” (“eleven” coming from the Old English “endleofan,” meaning “one left over, i.e., one more than, ten”) and “twelfth” (“twelve” being from the Old English “twelf,” literally “two left” over ten).

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