5th is fifth, 4th is fourth, 3rd is third, 2nd is second. People in races come fifth, fourth, third, and second. Divisions are one fifth, one fourth, one third, and one half?

Why is it one half and not one second, following the ordinal numbers?

  • It's always seemed to me that it should be "tooth" (and "threeth").
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 12:46
  • @HotLicks Wouldn't that be spelled twoth?
    – WS2
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 13:20
  • 1
    If you said "one second" instead of "one half", it would be understood as seconds of time, perhaps. i.e. one sixtieth of a minute (1/60, not 160) ;)
    – NVZ
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 15:58
  • @WS2 - Not with my lisp.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 21:05

1 Answer 1


I suppose because, in the everyday speech of ordinary people, the use of half long predated the other fractions.

This is the earliest entry in the OED, from the year 835.

Charter in Old Eng. Texts 447, & him man selle an half swulung an ciollan dene.

Whereas the earliest reference to third as a fraction (as opposed to an ordinal number) is from half a millennium later ▸c1384.

Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) (Douce 369(2)) (1850) 1 Macc. x. 29 Nowe Y assoile ȝou..of tributis, and I forȝeue to ȝou the pricis of salt, and forȝeue crownys, and the thriddis [a1425 L.V. thridde part] of seed.

  • 1
    This is an unbelievably cool answer! How were you able to look up those dates so easily?
    – zachwill
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 20:36
  • 1
    @zachwill Simply that I have on-line access to the Oxford English Dictionary, where for every sense of every word it provides examples of its historical use over the centuries. As a record of the history of the English language there is nothing to compare to it. Thank you for your complimentary remark.
    – WS2
    Commented Jan 7, 2022 at 21:36

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