Have you ever wondered where the words for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd come from? I have. I mean, four through ten make sense by just adding a “th” on the end of the numeral. So why are first, second, and third places so special?
Well, according to the Word Detective, we first need to understand the difference between ordinal numbers and cardinal numbers.
Ordinal number describe a thing’s place in a series, like first, second, third, fourth, and so on. You probably could have guessed that ordinal would be related to something’s order, right?
Cardinal numbers describe the amount of birds there are in a tree. Just kidding, but they could. Really, cardinal numbers just refer to normal, everyday, math problem type numbers, like one, two, three, four, etc.
Most of the time, the ordinals match up with the cardinals. Well, except when they don’t (first, second, third), which is why we are here in the first place. As to why they don’t always match up, no one really knows why we don’t use oneth, twoth, or threeth, aside from perhaps because we would sound like we have lithpth. Sorry, lisps. Someone must have decided to change things up one day and other people went along with it.
As to where the words actually come from, “first” is a descendant of “fyrst”, which was anglicized from the German “furist”, which also spawned the word “fore” as in “foremost”. So first is really a derivation of foremost, which makes a lot of sense.
The word “second” is a loan word from the French, which is a descendant of “secundus”, which means to follow in order. Before English speakers adopted “second”, apparently everyone just used “other”. That would have been really confusing, so it is probably a good thing that we started using it.
Third, we come to “third”, which is so close to three that you may not have even noticed that the “r” is in the wrong spot. In fact, this is precisely where the word “third” came from, as letters used to be a lot more fluid than they are now, and one day’s “thrid” became another day’s “third”. Simple as that.
So why didn’t we keep going and invent other words for 4 through 10? Maybe we just decided that enough was enough and that we should start to make sense.
Tune in next time when we go over two other crazy numbers, 11 and 12!