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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.
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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

12 Days of Wordlady: The twelfth day

Oops, maybe not such a great gift idea. "But you didn't teach me much!"

Well, here we are at the 12th day of Christmas, otherwise known as Epiphany, and yet another inconsistency in English. If the cardinal number is "twelve", why is its ordinal not "twelvth" but "twelfth"?

This story is similar to the story of "five" and "fifth", but without the vowel shift. 12 was originally "twelf", and indeed variations of that survived until the 1600s. But often a pronounced "e", or some other ending starting with a vowel, was required after "twelf" for grammatical reasons. This vowel caused the unvoiced consonant "f" to eventually become its voiced sibling, "v", so that the spelling and pronunciation "twelve" were the established ones by the end of the Renaissance. 

This did not happen with the ordinal of "twelf", which was "twelft". Like "fift", it gradually changed by analogy with "fourth", so that by the end of the Middle Ages, it became "twelfth", leaving us with a consonant cluster even harder to say than the final one in "fifth". Not surprisingly, people were already saying "twelth" in the 1400s.

There we are, we're done!  

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For what lords have to do with bread: 
Why I'm not the Word Wench:

For why milkmaids work in a dairy rather than a milkery:

For what swans have to do with singing, click here: 

Why we don't say "gooses" and "gooselings: 

For why we don't say "fiveth", "fiveteen", and "fivety", click here: 

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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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.