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I have been reading "Gulliver's Travels" (Otherwise known more verbosely as "Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of Several Ships"), and I have noticed that two-digit numbers are often written in the "German" style, that is it say that the "tens" place is written after the "ones" place.

I marked one example recently, but I have seen several others. From page 125 of the Collins Classics (2010) edition:

"No law of that country must exceed in words the number of letters in their alphabet, which consists only in two-and-twenty."

Some interior shots of the first edition show that the writing, apart from some minor differences still looks very much like contemporary English.

So my question is why the numbers are written like this. Was it common at the time for English speakers to say numbers this way? When did it change?

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  • 3
    4+20
    – TaW
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 6:57
  • 15
    what a perfect place to discuss endianness
    – 12Me21
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 18:48
  • 5
    English is a Germanic language. It was only after prolonged contact with other languages (like French) that we started saying numbers the wrong way (yes, I thnk languages and microprocessors should all be little-endian :-). Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 20:36
  • 10
    @LeeDanielCrocker:The German way, achthundertvierundsechzig, is middle-endian, neither fish nor fowl. Eight hundred four and sixty. An abomination, in my opinion. I don't know of any language that is truly little-endian.
    – TonyK
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 23:42
  • 2
    @BoldBen Doesn't the five come first in 'fif-teen'?
    – Mitch
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 21:08

4 Answers 4

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Putting the ones place before the tens place was formerly the primary way to discuss two-digit numbers like twenty-two. The Oxford English Dictionary, under "twenty, adj. and n.," lists the Old English translation of his Histories:

c893 tr. Orosius Hist. vi. ii. 256 Þara twa & twentigra monna þe he him to fultume hæfde acoren.

In Early Modern English the two forms are both used. The OED cites an example with the form we're more familiar with now:

1526 Proclam. 5 Nov. in Pat. Roll 18 Hen. VIII ii. m. 2 d The Soueraygne..shalbe curraunt..for twenty two shillynges and sixe pens.

As this previous StackExchange answer suggests, the Norman French influence shifted the order of numbering. Germanic numbering was finally supplanted around 1700, though dialects preserved the usage. Furthermore, literary authors sometimes tapped into the antiquated sense of the phrasing. For instance, even in the 20th century William Butler Yeats wrote If I Were Four-and-Twenty.

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  • 1
    It's also common in Dickens, as far as I remember.
    – egreg
    Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 17:59
  • 17
    The Yeats isn’t an example of “dialects preserved the usage”, but rather shows how it lived on in literary and poetic usage, and indeed still does — used both by good writers for deliberate archaic effect (or similar), and by bad writers because they think it makes their work more literary.
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 18:33
  • 2
    I've seen this type of usage in Sherlock Holmes too
    – ColonD
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 13:06
  • 1
    @PLL That's fair; I've adjusted my answer to reflect that. Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 13:12
  • 1
    See a few examples from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice: goodreads.com/topic/show/1190676-how-old-were-they
    – swbarnes2
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 20:37
16

This was quite common (for some numbers) among my parents generation when I was young, so I think it has only died out recently. (If it has. I certainly haven't heard it for a very long time.)

There is also the children's nursery rhyme "Sing a Song of Sixpence" which has the line "Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie". This might have helped preserve that style of numbering.

7
  • 7
    "This was quite common (for some numbers) among my parents' generation when I was young". That is my experience, too (in the UK). Times of day were often given like this, e.g. "five and twenty past three". Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 13:11
  • 5
    Can you clarify what “for some numbers” means? I don’t suppose they went around counting sixty-one, two and sixty, sixty-three – which type(s) of numbers would tend to have the Germanic order as more likely variants? Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 14:10
  • 1
    I mainly remember it being used for numbers between 20 and 30, but it may have also been used less frequently for things like "5 and 90". (This could also be related to the appallingly complicated pre-decimal currency in use at the time.)
    – user323578
    Commented Apr 21, 2019 at 16:31
  • 3
    @Philip Wood - my mother, born 1920 in London, used to say "five-and-twenty" past, or to, an hour, but my father, born the same year in Derby, said "twenty-five". The usage was confined to times only. Nobody said "three-and-forty shillings". Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 9:34
  • 4
    @JamesRandom the relationship with pre-decimal currency was different: "two and six" meant two shillings and sixpence.
    – pjc50
    Commented Apr 22, 2019 at 10:58
1

I am a very old man and my parents was born in England in the last decade of the 18th century. As a child we used to say five and twenty past two instead of twenty-five past two. I used to hear people say twice and thrice. Now it is much more common to say two times two is four instead of twice two is four. I never hear Americans use the word "twice".

2
  • 2
    "Twice" occurs all the time in American English, but not in that context. Usually it's used in sentences like "He knocked twice on the door." or something to that effect. It's not generally used in the mathematical sense though, more just to describe something happening two times. "Thrice" is pretty rare though. Commented Apr 25, 2019 at 3:19
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/18th_century
    – Řídící
    Commented Apr 27, 2019 at 14:26
0

The King James Version of 1769 (arguably, this is the influence of the 1611 translation) contains the unusual gem :

So when they had rowed five and twenty or thirty furlongs ... [John 6:19]

This seems an exceedingly odd way to approximate, to me, but it may be a peculiarity of the Greek text and the translators' desire to be faithful to the original.

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  • Authorized version of what? Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 23:47
  • @GeorgeWhite Otherwise known as the King James Version (of the Bible).
    – Nigel J
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 23:51

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