On a Dutch news site, someone claimed that the Dutch use of "nummer" (number) used in the meaning of "you are the number one", is actually an anglicism. It triggered my curiosity and I tried to find out whether that could be true.

Apparently, the word "nummer" in Dutch has been used for a long time and in the 18th century some quotations appear in the meaning of "the person or thing most in the foreground", as in the quote "Gy hebt u te veel ter noemer één gemaakt".

Trying to find proof, I searched some online English language etymology dictionaries, but didn't manage to find a first appearance in the meaning of "winner". This begged the question, maybe that particular use of number is actually a Dutchism or Germanism in the English language? Does anyone know when that meaning first appeared? Or would that meaning predate any current language use and it was already applied in Latin?

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    Are you asking when the phrase "number one" was used to mean "winner" for the first time? – Matt E. Эллен Nov 26 '12 at 10:36
  • @MattЭллен: yes, or in the meaning of "you are the number one", which has a similar meaning, not necessarily "winner", but closer to "the best, or foremost" (sorry, I'm not native... ;) – Abel Nov 26 '12 at 14:21
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    Interestingly enough there may be even more Dutch in English than we knew: Linguist Makes Sensational Claim: English Is a Scandinavian Language! – user14070 Nov 28 '12 at 21:53

I think you may be onto something, although I couldn't find a definitive source of information. I believe numerus unus or primus was not used like this in Latin; I have never seen it, and I can't find it used like that in the HP corpus. Nor is it mentioned in Lewis & Short.

As you said, the oldest Dutch quotation from the WNT is from 1785:

  • Gy hebt u te veel ter noemer één gemaakt — WOLFF en DEKEN, Leev. 8, 234 [1785].

  • Gij moet hier zo lang blijven, tot dat uwe gezondheid, (want dat is en blijft nommer één,) hersteld is — WOLFF en DEKEN, Wildsch. 5, 98 [1796].

The oldest quotation from the OED (2nd edition) is 54 years later:

  • He is the sole owner of the estate upon which the [race] track is located, and will, no doubt, do all he can to make it ‘a number one’ concern. — 1839 Spirit of Times 29 June 195/1.

Note also how the English author thought it necessary to put the phrase in quotation marks, suggesting that it was an fairly new and not very common expression in English, which Wolff and Deken apparently deemed unnecessary.

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  • Interesting, and glad you were able to track the Latin phrases. In 1689, the Dutch King William III ruled over England, Ireland and Scotland, and the Dutch royal family has since been of some influence, but I'd find it a bit far-stretched to give them credit for influencing the language as well. Then again, English has of course many roots in Diets and Danish, but those predate the 19th century by far. – Abel Nov 26 '12 at 14:27
  • @Abel: Yeah, we ruled them, but we failed to properly assimilate them, alas. I think most Dutch terms in English are from shipping and trade... – Cerberus_Reinstate_Monica Nov 26 '12 at 23:06

The OED includes the following definition for number one:

2. A person or thing of the first importance or the highest quality; the finest example of a person or thing.

The first quotation is from Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine of 1825:

‘I say, Miny, come hither, my number one,’ continued he, in a confidential tone, ‘I want to speak with you.’

This is still 40 years later than the 1785 earliest Dutch usage in the WNT. The OED has an older number one from 1705, meaning oneself, especially in to take care of number one, but I don't think this is quite the same thing.

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  • How is 'taking care of number one' not a similar usage? – user14070 Nov 26 '12 at 15:15

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