Welcome to the Wordlady blog!

This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
You can also order my best-selling book of over 500 intriguing word histories, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs. It's a fun read!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday the Threeteenth?

Why, other than because of general English perversity, do we say "third" and "thirteen" rather than "threed" (or even "threeth") and "threeteen"?

This is an example of what is called metathesis, where speakers switch around the order of sounds in a word. You'll be wanting to tell all your friends about this, so you should know that metathesis is pronounced "muh TATH uh sis". Metathesis is how "asterisk" becomes "asterix" and "pretty" becomes "purty", but before you get all huffy about how you would never be so sloppy in your pronunciation, consider that the word "wasp" was originally "waps". 

So, back to "three". The ordinal number was indeed "thrid" (pronounced "threed") in Old English and indeed was the prevalent form till the 1500s. But up in Northumberland, a metathesized form, "third", cropped up as early as the 950s and gradually made its way south till it established itself as the standard form. This apparently also affected "threeteen", which was the only form until the 1400s, but by 1700 had entirely lost out to the metathesized upstart. 

Do you want to know more about the amazing story of the English language? Sign up for my course starting in January 2014. More info here.   

2 comments:

  1. I think we metathesize to a form that's easier to pronounce. A case in point might be the Jamaican "aks" for "ask".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. For the story on "ask", see this post: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2012/07/is-ask-noun.html

      Delete