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When were numeric contractions for ordinals first used, as in 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th instead of first, second, third, sixth?

  • This question appears to be off-topic because it is about the history of writing in the Latin alphabet, not about English language or usage. – John Lawler Jan 22 '14 at 18:21
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    1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th are English contractions. In French, they are 1er, 2e, 3e — or maybe 1er, 2ème, 3ème. And in German, ordinals aren't contracted this way. See Wikipedia. – Peter Shor Jan 22 '14 at 19:20
  • @PeterShor I would at some level argue that they are not strictly speaking “contractions” per se. Because if they are, then 7,000 is a “contraction” of seven thousand — which I don’t buy for one minute. – tchrist Jan 23 '14 at 1:11
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According to Wikipedia, in Latin, ordinals were indicated by superscripts on Roman numerals.

XXo vicensimo

Not all languages currently do this; for example German and most Eastern European languages do not. Most Romance languages do, along with a number of others, including Dutch and English.

In English, Wikipedia says these started out as superscripts: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, but during the 20th century they migrated to the baseline: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th.

So the practice started during the Roman empire, and probably was continuously used since then in the Romance languages.

I don't know when it was adopted in English. Here is a pamphlet entitled:

Mr. PRYNNE's New-Year's-GIFT,
to the Rump-Parliament &c.
The 1ſt of January, 1648-9.

So it goes back a long way … I would suspect that you can find these contractions near the beginning of printed matter in English.

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  • They migrated to the baseline because of the tyranny of the typewriter and the chains of ASCII. :) – tchrist Jan 23 '14 at 1:12

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