Posted by: Jack Henry | June 20, 2012

Editor’s Corner: Second Half of the Numbers and Numerals

So many eager folks yesterday, begging for “ordinal numbers” and the like! Here is the other half of the article “10 Types of Numerical Terms,” by Mark Nichol, from

Ordinal Numbers

Ordinal numbers — first, second, third, and so on — represent sequential order. Second is anomalous in that it alone comes from Latin rather than Old English; it supplanted the ambiguous English word other (still used in this sense in the phrase “every other”). There was never a twoth — or a [sic] onth, for that matter; that latter vacancy was filled by a form of fore, while third and so on are derived from the cardinal numbers.)

This is a good place to remind writers to deactivate the function on their computer that, by default, creates superscript ordinal indicators (miniature renditions of st, nd, rd, and th perched on the right shoulders of numerals). The perverse persistence of this Victorian affectation in state-of-the-art word-processing programs is a puzzler — and an annoyance to editors, who have to convert such aberrant symbols into baseline indicators before production. [KC – While I do not get annoyed by this “perversity,” it
is something many editors change, including those of us in the San Diego shop.]

Partitive Numbers

Partitive numbers — half, thirds, fourths, and so on — represent fractions. Half, which is from Old English, originally meant merely “part.” (Behalf, meaning “on the part of,” retains this imprecise meaning.) The others are just variations on Old English terms for the associated numbers.

Ranking Numerals

Ranking numerals – primary, secondary, tertiary, and so on (this class shares quaternary and higher values with the composite-numbers category) — represent degrees of importance or relevance. These terms are ultimately Latin in origin.

Reproductive Numbers

Reproductive numbers — single, double, triple, and so on, plus the generic multiple — represent replication. Single and double are from Latin by way of French; the higher values are all directly from Latin.

Miscellaneous Terms

Deuce, from the similarly pronounced precursor to French deux, is an old-fashioned synonym for two that persists in sports and gambling references. The mild oath “What the deuce,” a euphemism for “What the devil?” probably comes from association with deuce as a low score and therefore the outcome of bad luck.

Trinity, from Latin through French, and triad, directly from Latin, both mean “a group or set of three.” Triplicate, meaning “threefold,” is from Latin; -fold is from the Old English cognate of -plus, which is where we got the element -ple and its extension -plicate. Treble is the French form of triple; both come from the Latin triplus. Trice, used in the phrase “in a trice,” meaning “quickly,” is unrelated to thrice (“three times”); it’s of nautical origin, from a Middle English word borrowed from a Dutch term meaning “pull, hoist.”

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