I remember often having professors in college use degree symbols to write shorthand versions of Latinate ordinal numbers.

For example:

1°    Primary
2°    Secondary
3°    Tertiary
4°    Quaternary

I have a few questions regarding this shorthand approach:

  1. Does this approach have a name?

  2. What is the origin of this approach?

  3. Is it simply a shorthand developed by professors or is it more widely used?

I thought I'd gain insight by exploring the use of superscript primes in the sciences, but I didn't find answers to my questions via that rabbit hole adventure...

  • 2
    Maybe the o up there is actually part of the word represented. 1° is "primo", 2° is "secundo", etc. – GEdgar Oct 18 at 14:47
  • Something along the lines perhaps of the old-fashioned paper sizing: 4vo quarto, 8vo octavo, &c.? – Deonyi Oct 18 at 14:56
  • Possible duplicates -- and a bit wider in scope, giving the correct answer not just for the degree symbol but all the ordinal indicators such as "st", "nd", and th": english.stackexchange.com/questions/35310, english.stackexchange.com/questions/192804 – MetaEd Oct 18 at 20:32
up vote 10 down vote accepted

This is an ordinal indicator.

In written languages, an ordinal indicator is a character, or group of characters, following a numeral denoting that it is an ordinal number, rather than a cardinal number.

In English orthography, this corresponds to the suffixes -st, -nd, -rd, -th in written ordinals (represented either on the line 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or as superscript, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th)... [and] ... different characters from the superscript lower-case letter o or a, the degree symbol (°), or the ring diacritic (˚).

Wikipedia

Wikipedia further states. regarding origin :

The practice of indicating ordinals with superscript suffixes may originate with the practice of writing a superscript o to indicate a Latin ablative in pre-modern scribal practice.

The word 'ordinal' distinguishes it from the usual way of writing numbers which is 'cardinal'.

Cardinal number n. (Arith.): a number which answers the question ‘how many?’; one of the primitive or ‘natural’ numbers

OED

Ordinal Marking position in an order or series; applied to those numbers which refer something to a certain place in a series

OED

  • 3
    I wasn't actually expecting such a simple or straightforward answer given how little turned up with a Google search. This is exactly what I was looking for! Thanks, Nigel! – theforestecologist Oct 18 at 14:40
  • You're welcome. – Nigel J Oct 18 at 14:42

Your Answer

 
discard

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.