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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

12 Days of Wordlady: The Fifth Day

Five golden rings

Well, I have to tell you, "golden" and "ring" are pretty boring words, having meant the same things since, well, forever.

But "fifth", now THERE'S an interesting story.

The fift day of Christmas

If I said, "On the fift day of Christmas", you'd probably think, "Don't you know how to speak proper, Katherine? You sound like a gangster!" Even worse, can you imagine if I referred to that famous history play of Shakespeare's as "Henry the Fift"?

And yet....  

The first edition of Shakespeare's Henry V


So, what gives?

"Fift" was indeed the original ordinal form of the number "five". The -th ending started to appear only in the 13th century, by analogy with "fourth" (which had always had a -th ending). But "fift" survived well into the 17th century, and in some dialects much longer.

The fith day of Christmas

A more recent development in the pronunciation of this word is the dropping of the second "f", so that it sounds like "fith". This naturally causes much gnashing of teeth in some quarters. But it is here to stay, the result of the phonetic difficulty of saying "f" followed by "th".

The fiveth day of Christmas
Another obvious question is: if the number is "five", why aren't its derivatives "fiveth", "fiveteen" and "fivety"?

First, let's look at the difference in the vowels. This is the result of the dastardly Great Vowel Shift, which messed with many English words between about 1400 and 1700. 

Back in Old English, all these words were much more closely related: fif, fift, fiftene, fiftig.  In all cases the first syllable would have originally sounded like "feef".  In the derivatives fift, fiftene, and fiftig, however, because the vowel was followed by two consonants, fif gradually shortened to sound like "fif".  Short vowels were not affected by the Great Vowel Shift, so these are still pronounced today as they were in the Middle Ages. Long stressed vowels, such as the long "ee" sound that still survived in "fif", however, moved to a different place in our English mouths, in this case to the diphthong we call a "long i".

The fifeth day of Christmas

And why is it "five" rather than "fife"? In Old English, fif  had various endings depending on the role it was playing in a sentence: fífe, fífa, fífum. Because there is a very old tendency in English to voice (i.e. to make the vocal cords vibrate when saying) consonants between two vowels, the second "f" became a "v", and voila, fif became "five".

Now you are no doubt wondering about "fife", the small flute. This came into the English language much later, in the 1500s, possibly from German pfeife, which already had what we would call a "long i", and which turned up too late for its final "f" to become voiced into a "v". 

For why it was OK to call the Virgin Mary a "bird", click here: 

For what French hens have to do with syphilis, click here: 

For turtle-doves, click here: http://katherinebarber.blogspot.ca/2014/12/12-days-of-wordlady-turtle-doves.html

For what partridges have to do with farting, click here:

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  1. Interesting. And there's "Hiftory" in the same line, which didn't become "Hivtory".

    1. Hi Heather, the "f" in "Hiftory" is not really an "f". It is what was called a "long s", which was used for s's in the middle and at the beginning of words until the late 18th century.

    2. Similarly, the German ß is a combination of a 'long s' and a 'normal' s...


About Me

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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.