Oneteen and Twoteen

Today is November 11, 2011 — or, 11/11/11.  It is a very “eleven” day. But with the number 12, eleven captures an odd spot, linguistically.  While all the other numbers (excluding zero to ten) seem to follow a formulaic pattern, these two — at first blush, at least — are outliers.  In short, “11” is not “oneteen” and for that matter, “12” is not “twoteen.” What is going on here? While you may think that the words emerged from a base-12 numbering system — think months of the year, hours in half a day, or inches in a foot — it turns out that this simply isn’t the case.  “Eleven” is actually a base-10 term. The word “eleven” is derived from the Old English word “endleofan” (pronounced “end-lih-fen”) which itself comes from the Germanic “ainlif,” a compound word: “ain” means “one” and “lif” was a version of the word “left.” (The word “leave” has the same root.)  Combined, “ainlif” means “one left.” Imagine a Germanic goat herder from the early Middle Ages counting his flock, putting them in units of ten — but missing his estimate and ending up with one left over.  That last one is “ainlif” — “eleven.” The word … Continue reading Oneteen and Twoteen