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

closed as too broad by John Lawler, MrHen, anongoodnurse, Kristina Lopez, tchrist Jan 24 '14 at 23:43

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  • 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

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.

  • 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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