A while back, I explored the origins of first, second, and third place due to the fact that they are so different from one, two, and three (unlike fourth place and the number four which are pretty obviously connected). At the end of that post, I teased that we were soon going to delve into the mysterious origins of the numbers eleven and twelve.
Well, better late than never!
So, why do we say eleven instead of one-teen, or twelve instead of twelve-teen? Where did eleven and twelve even come from in the first place?
According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “eleven” is from 12th-century Old English “enleofan” which translates literally to “one left over”. Likewise, “twelve” translates to “two left over”. And that makes sense, given that ten is the number that most people can count to using their fingers. If you get all the way up to ten and you still have one thing left, then you have eleven. Two left? Twelve.
Simple as that.
Then why don’t we continue with “threlve” for thirteen? Maybe there were never three things left over. Who knows? But I kind of like the word “threlve” so I’m going to start using it anyway. After all, that’s the real way that words come into being. Just by using them, regardless of whether they make sense or not.