Why do we say “second” and not “twoth”?

Thanks in large part to the impassioned activism of the #NeverAgain movement, the news hasn’t moved on from the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, as it has too often in recent massacres in the US. The pressure is staying on gun control, keeping the Second Amendment to the US Constitution in the hot seat.

The Second Amendment is also in this post’s etymological hot seat. I’m not debating its constitutional interpretation, though. I’m debating why we say second and not twoth.   

The second hand is really the third hand on a clock, which has no first hand. (Pixabay

The second amendment to the English language

Old English, apparently, had no word for the ordinal for two.

It used the -th suffix for fourth and above, excepting fifth, sixth, eleventh, and twelfth. They featured a reduced –t before Middle English started regularizing them in the 1300s. 

But two never had a twoth.

Instead, Old English made do with other, which strictly meant “one of two,” “following the first,” or “next.” Another begins as an other, originally “a second (of two things).” The Latin-derived alter is related, if we go back far enough.

As other serves many, er, other roles in the language, English speakers eventually shrugged it off as too ambiguous for such a high-volume idea as “after first.”

Second rose to the occasion—one upside, I guess, to the Norman Conquest? It comes from the French second, in turn from the Latin secundus, literally “following” or “next.”

As we examined on the blog some years back, secundus is related to the verb sequi, “to follow,” a root manifest in derivatives ranging from execute to pursue to sequel. Even words like intrinsic, scarlet, sign, and soccer are etymological kin, if we look to the many twists and turns of its Proto-Indo-European *sekw-.

First things “foremost”

The Ancient Romans also used secundus as its ordinal for “two,” or duo. They used primus for “first,” its “one” being uno; our prime is an heir.

Scribing in their Medieval Latin, mathematicians in the Middle Ages sliced up their circles by 60, a sexagesimal system inherited from the Ancient Greeks and the Babylonians before them. These astronomers and geometers referred to the first division as pars minuta prima (“first small part”), which we now call a minute (literally a “diminished thing” in Latin). The second was pars minuta secunda, or “second small part,” i.e., second division by 60. These are our seconds.

Latin’s primus is irregular like its English counterpart, “first.” First is literally “fore-est,” at one time the superlative form for “most fore,” now foremost. That which comes before all else is first.

For its part, third begins as thrid, showcasing a switch-a-roo (metathesis) that inverted sounds in other words like dirt and bird and curd.

It’s interesting how English and Latin share an irregularity  terms for first and second. Their etymological senses of “most fore” or “coming after” suggest a kind of environmental immediacy in prehistory, where saliency and sequence ordered our numerical, and linguistic, experience before any systematicity needed to settle in. But I’ll wax romantic no more, leaving it to the linguists to weigh in if there is any larger, more universal phenomenon at work here.

For more on hidden superlatives in English, see my piece in Mental Floss last year. For instance, did you now next literally means “most nigh”?

And for more on the oddities of English numbers, listen to John McWhorter on a recent episode of Lexicon Valley. Why do we pronounce one with a w sound and what’s up with the word eleven? He has the answers, and much more.

m ∫ r ∫

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