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"Third" - Sally's Journal
October 26th, 2004
03:40 pm

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"Third"
A while ago there was a large sign on Huntingdon road celebrating (sic) someones 1/3 rd birthday.*

Which made me wonder why the word third (my third birthday, I came third in a race) is the same as the word third (I had a third of the cake).

I mean, it doesn't work for any other fraction (I came half in a race, I want a second of the cake**) I suppose you might get away with "I want a forth of that cake" at a push, but that's wrong, isn't it?

I feel we need a new word for one or other of the thirds, to stop this confusion...

*actually, it might have been 20 1/3rd, or 50 1/3rd but the point is there.
** although if you were speaking to an astronomer used to working in minutes you might get a very very very thin slice of cake. After which, you would need seconds!

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From:agenticarus
Date:October 26th, 2004 07:48 am (UTC)
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How about a fifth of the cake? Or a sixth? It looks that it only works with 'th's...

Mike
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From:fanf
Date:October 26th, 2004 07:49 am (UTC)
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Or if you are a Merkin, fourth.
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From:atreic
Date:October 26th, 2004 07:59 am (UTC)
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Ok then, it works with ths. But why? Is it just a case of using the same word to mean different things, that only have the number in common, or is there some link between fractions and places?

If you had 9 people running a race, then coming third would be true - but coming fifth of sixth wouldn't!

Nah, it must just be a language being stupid thing.
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From:simont
Date:October 26th, 2004 08:20 am (UTC)
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I think I've seen the form "a tenth part of <whatever>" in archaic contexts. That sort of hints to my intuition that the use of "tenth" to mean a fraction as well as an ordinal might be related to the usage "every tenth so-and-so", which in principle is an ordinal usage (it instructs you to count to ten repeatedly) but in practice ends up selecting (roughly) a 1/10 fraction of the number of things you started with.

That's weak, but it at least suggests some connection between the two usages. I imagine that "half" and "quarter" are different simply because they're common enough to have evolved their own words before anyone got round to making up a standard means of constructing a word for a 1/N fraction.

(I always feel uncomfortable talking about 1/21 or 1/22 as "a twenty-first" or "a twenty-second", even though I believe those are the technically correct forms. They just feel more like ordinals than fractions.)
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From:bluap
Date:October 26th, 2004 08:41 am (UTC)
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I think I've seen the form "a tenth part of " in archaic contexts.

That's a fairly plausible etymology.

Interestingly, ordinals are adjectives, while fractions are nouns.

Paul
From:yrieithydd
Date:October 26th, 2004 11:30 am (UTC)
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But using adjectives substantivally is not uncommon.
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From:vyvyan
Date:October 26th, 2004 08:29 am (UTC)
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It's not just -ths either. If you wanted 1/21 of something, you could say "one twenty-first" or probably "one twenty-first part"; similarly "one thirty-second" rather than "one thirty half"! English, like many languages, only has distinct forms for fractional parts for the commonest, largest fractions (i.e. with the smallest numbers as denominators). Above 4 all fractions are expressed identically to the ordinals (the 1st, 2nd etc. type of numerals); and historically, all fractions above 1/2 were expressed identically to the ordinals. "Third" isn't an exception - it's "quarter" which requires a special explanation (it was borrowed from French into Middle English, and probably had a more specific meaning in the first place e.g. quarter of a coin, a measure of land or something like that).
From:yrieithydd
Date:October 26th, 2004 11:29 am (UTC)
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I remember the first time I needed a word for the fraction which results from cutting a sixteenth in half;* a thirty-second sounded silly so my friend and I referred to `a thirty-twoth!'.

Interestingly, Welsh has a `oneth'. Cyntaf (which is used for first) originally meant earliest. This makes sense for first but not for the first on ten etc so there is `unfed' for that (unfed ar ddeg `oneth on ten' or eleventh).

Welsh does have a word for a third part but not a quarter IIRC.

*We were doing that craft thing where you make spirals with thin strips of card and stick them on another bit of card. We were cutting the strips in half and half again to get smaller bits. We must have been about 10!
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From:teleute
Date:October 26th, 2004 07:08 pm (UTC)
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Except that I just give up after second and third: everything else, as far as I'm concerned is just number-th (I would read 4/21 as four twenty-oneths for instance). My students don't seem to mind too much ;-)
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From:teleute
Date:October 26th, 2004 08:06 am (UTC)
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Did you consider the possibility that its an over-adoring parent celebrating the first four months?

And in America, the appropriate term is 'fourth' when you're discussing, for instance, a fourth of the cake.
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From:atreic
Date:October 26th, 2004 08:08 am (UTC)
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no, it really was something like "20 1/3rd"

And I doubt any mother can stay that adoring for that long :-)
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From:feanelwa
Date:October 26th, 2004 09:50 am (UTC)
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Maybe they missed having a party on their 20th birthday and put it off for four months.

Maybe it was somebody on Livejournal seeing if anybody would notice!
From:yrieithydd
Date:October 26th, 2004 11:23 am (UTC)
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A long a while was a while ago? 4 months ago is just after May Week, so maybe someone wanted to celebrate with friends, but couldn't fit it in in May Week (in anticipation) so kept it after coming back.
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From:ewx
Date:October 26th, 2004 08:08 am (UTC)
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As far as I can see second is the only cases where Nth is never same as 1/N. Second seems to ultimately be a latin borrowing, which makes if it was introduced to English in a legal context or something like that.

(We don't say "zeroth" or "first" for fractions either, but we don't have any single word for 1/0 and usually simplify 1/1 to just 1.)</p

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From:claroscuro
Date:October 26th, 2004 11:12 am (UTC)
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Well, though I blush to admit it, I read a 'second' of a cake as a perfectly sensible, if very small, measurement of cake...
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From:sphyg
Date:October 26th, 2004 03:34 pm (UTC)
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Or a second portion. Mmm, cake ;P
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From:lisekit
Date:October 26th, 2004 03:53 pm (UTC)
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Never forget the nature of the linguistic sign.









(It's arbitrary, BTW.....;-))
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