One hippopotamus, two hippopotamus….
Dear Word Detective: A few months ago you answered a question about why “first” and “second” bore no resemblance to “one” and “two” (unlike “third,” “fourth” and so on, which resemble the actual numbers). You mentioned that all of these are called “ordinal” terms as opposed to “cardinal” numbers such as “one,” two,” etc. That made me wonder about other “ord” words, such as “ordinary,” “ordain,” “ordinance,” “ordeal” and probably others. Is there any connection between these words and “ordinal”? — Barry Weiss.
Um, yeah, that was actually last summer (August, to be precise), which puts it beyond my personal event horizon, so I’m gonna have to hunt down that column and see what I said. The older I get the more sympathy I have for those crooks who get hauled in front of committees and claim to have no memory of their own byzantine scams. Most of those guys can probably barely remember where they stashed the loot.
Onward. I re-reading that column, which focused on “ordinal” numbers, I noticed that I never explained the term “cardinal” in “cardinal number.” It’s from the Latin adjective “cardinalis,” which means “chief, principal, essential” or “hinge” (and comes, in turn, from Latin “cardo,” meaning “door hinge”). The logic is that something is “cardinal” if important things “hinge” (depend or rely) on it, as the cardinal number terms “one, two, three, etc.” are the primary names for numbers. The use of “Cardinal” as the title of a high church cleric is a specialized application of the adjective.
As I noted last August, the root of “ordinal” is the Latin “ordo,” meaning “row or series” (thus the ordinals “first, second, etc.” reflect the places of numbers in an ascending series). Probably the most popular English derivative of “ordo” is “order,” which, as both a noun and a verb, dates to the early 13th century. In general, the noun “order” carries the sense of things arranged in a hierarchy, series or progression by rank, though in certain contexts it can also mean a group or organization united by purpose, doctrine (as in a religious order), social status, etc. As a verb, “order” originally meant “to arrange in proper order,” but in the 16th century expanded to mean “issue commands in keeping with established order or procedure.”
“Ordinary,” first appearing in the 15th century, originally meant “normal, usual or customary,” i.e., in keeping with the usual order of things. That which is “extraordinary” is, etymologically, “outside” the usual.
“Ordain,” meaning to appoint to the ministry of a church, comes from the Latin “ordinare” (another relative of “ordo”) meaning “to put in order, arrange, appoint.” “Ordinance,” meaning a law or civil regulation, comes from the same source.
As painful as all these rules and laws may be, they can’t compare to the original sense of “ordeal” (which has, by the way, no connection to our friend “ordo”). When it appeared in Old English (as “ordel” or “ordal,” related to the Old High German “urteil” meaning “judgment”), an “ordeal” was a trial by physical pain or danger in which the accused proved innocence by surviving. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “In Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, until its abolition in 1215, the ordeal could take any of four forms: fire, hot water, cold water, and trial by combat.” Today an “ordeal” can be any protracted and extremely unpleasant experience.