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Friday, August 1, 2014

Why is today the first, not the oneth?


It's an odd thing, but in many languages, the ordinal associated with the number "one" is not created along regular lines by just adding whatever the ordinal suffix is (in English, -th) to the number. Thus we have the following patterns (or lack thereof)

Latin:        unum primus
French:     un      premier
German:   eins     erst

Likewise, Old English didn't have an ordinal corresponding to "one", so other various superlatives meaning "foremost" or "earliest" were drafted for the job: fyrst, forma, fyrmest (also formest, Northumbrian forðmest). These words were all related to the adverb "fore" meaning "beforehand" or "in front of", "fyrst" being the "fore-est", so to speak. Over the centuries, it was the word that won out as the ordinal of "one". 

The Scandinavian languages also went this way: Danish  and Norwegian første, Swedish först, Icelandic fyrst.
But German and Dutch did something different. Another Old English possibility for the "one-most" was "erst", the superlative of "ere" (early, soon, before). This word now survives in English only in "erstwhile" (former). But in Dutch eerste and in German erste won out as the words for "first". (Fürst, just to be confusing, is the German word  for "prince", the foremost ruler.) 

By the way, "1th" seems to be quite popular in Japan; the picture at the top of this post was just one of quite a few "Japlish" examples I found on Google images.

For the story on "second", see this post: 

For the story on "third", see this post:

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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.