Thursday, August 25, 2016

Oneth, Twoth, Threeth

Judy from Elk Rapids asked why we use the adjectives first, second, and third instead of oneth, twoth, and threeth. After all, the rest of the numerical adjectives (fourth, fifth, sixth, etc.) routinely end in –th or –eth.

First of all, we need to make a distinction between types of numbers. When you add up and proclaim the actual number of units involved (one. two, three . . .), you are dealing with the cardinal numbers. Cardinal in this sense means a hinge. The choice of the adjective to describe a particular number hinges upon how many items are involved. For instance, if we are focusing on the numbers six, seven, and eight, we wouldn’t choose ninth, tenth, and eleventh to represent them. It would be sixth, seventh, and eighth.

Now, those adjective forms ending in –th or –eth are called ordinal numbers. They show the spatial or chronological order or sequence involved—the fifth window from the left, the eighth person to come through the door.

Back to oneth, twoth, threeth. The reason why they don’t exist, logical though they might be, was that they were preceded by different well-established forms. First was firmly set in place in Germanic and Old English. Second was locked in by Latin/French words that meant next after the first. Third was also set in stone by Latin/Germanic words, and unlike first for one and second for two, at least third and three bear some resemblance to each another.

And there’s another reason why one/first, two/second, and three/third aren’t all that unusual in English. There are many adjectives that look nothing at all like their nouns. That’s because they don’t share the same root. Technically, such an adjective is called a collateral adjective.

The animal kingdom is rife with such disparities.  Consider the following animal names (nouns) and the adjectives that represent them:

cat (feline)
dog (canine)
cow (bovine)
dove (columbine)
gerbil (cricetine)
pig (porcine)
sheep (ovine)
wolf (lupine)

The absence of tightly woven resemblances (no cat/catine or dog/dogine in that list) makes one/first and two/second look a lot less exotic.

Listen to Mike’s program in real time every Tuesday morning, 9:10 - 10:00 a.m. EST, by going to and clicking on Listen Now. You’ll also find about a month’s worth of podcasts there under The Ron Jolly Show.


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