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second to none

To the ears of a non-native speaker, mine anyway, this expression sounds very laborious.

Where does it come from?

Is it not contrary to the idea that English is a 'reductionist' language?

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    Shakespeare used it in The Comedy of Errors: "Of very reverend reputation, sir, Of credit infinite, highly beloved, Second to none that lives here in the city: His word might bear my wealth at any time." – Peter Shor Mar 11 '14 at 13:10
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    Nulli Secundus (Second to None): Motto of The Coldstream Guards (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coldstream_Guards) – Kris Mar 11 '14 at 13:15
  • It seems to go back to 1469, if you allow German. – Peter Shor Mar 11 '14 at 13:42
  • Only infrequently, Peter Shor. – Jonas Mar 11 '14 at 14:14
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    @Jonas Second to none is another way of saying first. – Elliott Frisch Mar 11 '14 at 14:33
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It's possible that it's an idiom that came out of Greek to English translation. I just ran across the phrase "οὐδενὸς δεύτερον", "second of none", twice in the early pages of Dionysius of Halicarnassus' Roman Antiquities (I.13.1, I.15.2, where Earnest Cary translated it as "inferior to none" and "second to none" respectively in the Loeb edition). Or perhaps Dionysius took it from Latin, though I'm not sure what the oldest occurrence of "Nulli Secundus" (as mentioned above) is.

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    I like the classical source. I found a close mention of the sense of the phrase in Troilus and Criseyde and exact mention in another earlier source, so I'd adjust the answer to allow for other Latin-educated authors to use it. (It could also be in or from Italian and French.) – TaliesinMerlin Mar 29 at 19:11
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    Yes, you're right. It certainly could come through the romance languages into English. I took out the reference to Shakespeare. – Mallioch Mar 29 at 20:09
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This is a partial answer relating to its introduction into English.

The idea of someone being second to no other person (to mean first) is present in Middle English. For instance, Chaucer describes Troilus this way:

And certaynly in storye it is founde

That Troylus was neuere vn-to no wight

As in his tyme in no degre secounde. (Troilus and Criseyde, book 5, lines 834-6)

(And certainly in story it is found that Troilus was never second in any degree to a man in his time.)

And then a few lines later, in case "in no degre secounde" weren't clear enough:

His herte ay with the first and with the beste.

Stood peregal (839-40)

(His heart indeed with the first and with the best stood fully equal.)

By 1571 the exact prase "second to none" has worked its way into print, in an edition titled Straunge, lamentable, and tragicall hystories translated out of French into Englishe by R.S.:

and marke wherefore that good Christ, second to none in pacience, doth so dilligently set forth examples

Shakespeare was an early person to use the phrase, but the etymology of both this idea and the literal phrase within English goes back further than him.

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Second to none means literally: there is no one to whom this person would be second. (i.e. It is the best.) It can be applied to objects, too.

It is definitely an archaic construction (there are enough references in comments above to this effect.) Most people use it en bloc as a phrase in modern English, even though they wouldn't say the opposite second to all, etc. Like many archaic usages it sounds clumsy to a modern ear.

I think it has stuck around in modern English due to its cache in advertising copy, etc. It has a more sophisticated ring to it than the best, #1, tip-top, etc.

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    Shakespeare used it as (essentially) advertising copy 420 years ago. Some things don't change. – Peter Shor Mar 11 '14 at 15:05
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    Despite this being a 2-year-old Q and A, I wanted to add that (as a non-native) I always thought it means to second to none as in "He seconds to none." meaning he is the leader of it all, no one stands above him, he looks up to no one, supports no one etc. ... I feel smarter now that I know what it really means... – jera Mar 25 '16 at 8:06
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To Dutch speaking people the expression 'second to none' sounds similar to the Dutch saying 'zo goed als niet(s)', which means 'little or no(thing)'. 'Second to none' could easily be interpreted as 'only none being less' (for example: 'I know second to none about astrology' could mean 'my knowledge of astrology is close - second - to none'). Ain't language a curious thing!?

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