Alaska Legislature

Gov. Mike Dunleavy leading state and local officials out of Wasilla Middle School in Wasilla to a news conference. 

KODIAK — It’s good to be back at my writing desk this week. I took last week off from my column as two young actors, of whom I am proud to call their coach, had qualified for a national tournament, so I was with them. In the unbearable Texas heat. Ugh.

But it seems that I didn’t miss too much news while I was away. The fire is still raging in the Kenai Peninsula, the Kodiak Island Food Bank is finally going to change management, and the governor is still demanding a second special session in Wasilla. Why a second special session? Because we still haven’t settled the PFD question and, as of this writing, a budget still has not been signed. Second ugh.

I suppose we could have recurring special legislative sessions, which got me thinking about words such as first, second, etc., because this is a rag-tag group of adjectives from all sorts of different backgrounds. These special adjectives are called ordinals (or ordinal numbers, or determiners). Let’s start with the headlining ordinal second.

English writers started using the word second to refer to whatever was next in order after the first around 1300. It comes directly from the Old French second (sometimes spelled secont), a shortened version of the Latin secundus, which meant following or next in order. While it did not necessarily only mean the second in line, as we understand it today, it could mean anything after the first, which led to second also meaning subordinate or inferior.

I wonder if Lucius Pedanius Secundus, the first Roman senator from Spain, reflected on that meaning as he was stabbed to death by one of his 400 slaves in the year 61.

Admittedly, I sometimes bemoan the replacement of perfectly good or poetic Old English words by French after the Norman invasion. But in the case of second, I have no beef with the French. You see, before second forced its way into English parlance, all the English had was the ambiguous, and often confusing, word: other.

Now, other wasn’t always ambiguous. The Proto-Germanic anthera and Proto-Indo-European an-tero both literally mean one of the two. But in the middle of the 12th century, it came to be an adjective meaning different, which got a bit confusing. So that’s why we use second today.

But you can’t have a second special legislative session unless you have a first one. The word first has held onto its Old English and Germanic roots. It comes from the Proto-Germanic furista, meaning foremost, whose root lies in the PIE pre-isto, meaning forward, in front of, or chief.

In most cases, the word first is merely an adjective: first name (from the mid-13th century), first floor (coined in the 1660s), and first base (first used as a euphemism for kissing in the 1940s).

But it’s also used as a superlative, a word that indicates something of the highest quality. For instance, First Lady (now FLOTUS) was first used in 1908 as a shortened version of First Lady of the Land, coined by a Martha Washington biographer in 1838.

Old English speakers used the word forma for this purpose, turning into firme in Middle English, but it had died out by the days of Shakespeare. 

Like first, the ordinal number third has survived since late Old English, but was originally spelled and pronounced thrid, a popular spelling up until the 16th century. Over the centuries, since at least the literate monks in 950, thrid underwent a linguistic phenomenon called metathesis, the transposition of sounds or letters in a word. It’s like when your kid says pasgetti instead of spaghetti. But at some point the error becomes so popular (you see this happening today with woah, historically spelled whoa), that it becomes official. I sure hope woah doesn’t become the official spelling of whoa. Third ugh.

Third comes from the Proto-Germanic thridja and PIE tri-tyo, a clear connection to the number three.

And that’s what separates the ordinals first and second from the rest of them: etymologically, first has nothing to do with the word one; second has nothing to do with the word two. (Although we do have the adverb once, from one, and the noun deuce, from two. But those aren’t ordinals.) However, third, fourth, fifth, etc., are all suffixed forms of the numerals themselves. It’s that suffix –th that allows us to create as many ordinals as there are numbers: an infinite amount.

Luckily, thanks to the Alaska Constitution, infinite ordinals doesn’t mean infinite special legislative sessions.

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