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 books, Six Words You Never Knew Had Something to do With Pigs and Only in Canada You Say. Fun and informative!


Subscribe! Fun facts about English delivered weekly right to your inbox. IT'S FREE! Fill in your email address below.
Privacy policy: we will not sell, rent, or give your name or address to anyone. You can unsubscribe at any point.

Search This Blog

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. 

For an explanation of why the ordinal of "one" is "first", click here 
For the story on "second", see this post: 

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.   


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

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

  2. I like "curly" and "cruller," though you have to drag in the Dutch for that one.


About Me

My photo
Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.