Why Are They Called “Numbers”?

I live in a condominium, one of those ones that look like an apartment building. It’s not a bad building, really, but it has a couple of interesting quirks. Like the locked storage closet in a hallway by the stairs. But we’ve adapted, and we now use it to store things that we don’t want to have to walk out to the garage for, but we also don’t want to keep in the house. Like our Christmas decorations, and my tools.

Well, my son and I needed to fetch those tools – he’s got a white board now, and I promised him we’d hang it up on his wall. As I’m opening up the closet, he’s eagerly reading the brass numbers on each of the closet doors. “One,” he says. “Two. That’s our number! Three. Four. Why are they numbers?”

“What?” I ask, pulling my head out of the closet.

“Why are they numbers?”

I shrug. “Because we need to show which condo owns which closet, and…”

“No, daddy,” he corrects me. “Why are they called numbers?”

Oh, good. An etymology question. But fortunately, I’ve got the Online Etymology Dictionary to turn to for that. And they provide derivations for “number” as both a noun and a verb. As a verb, “number” comes from the Old French word nombrer, meaning “to count, reckon”. The “to assign a number to” meaning appears to date to the late 14th century CE, while “to ascertain the number of” appears to date to the early 15th century CE.

The noun form of “number” comes from the Old French nombre, which I strongly suspect is related to the Old French nombrer discussed above – I don’t speak French, though, so I really can’t prove it. Nombre comes from the Latin word numerus (meaning “a number, quantity”), which derives from the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root word *nem- (meaning, “to divide, distribute, allot).

Because I was on the subject, I decided to look into the origin of the words we use for the numbers themselves. It turns out that, at least for the first ten numbers, English number names appear to derive directly from PIE words, through Old Germanic and into English.

  • One derives from the Old English an, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *ainaz, which derives from the PIE *oi-no- (meaning “one, unique”).
  • Two derives from the Old English twa (which is the feminine and neuter form of the Old English twegen which also meant “two”), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *twa, which derives from the PIE *duwo.
  • Three derives from the Old English þreo (the feminine and neuter form; the masculine was þri or þrie), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *thrijiz, which derives from the PIE *trei.
  • Four derives from the Old English feower, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *fedwor-, which derives from the PIE *kwetwer-. The dictionary also notes that “the phonetic evolution of the Germanic forms has not been fully explained”.
  • Five derives from the Old English fif, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *fimfe, which derives from the PIE *penkwe-.
  • Six derives from the Old English siex (or six, or sex), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *sekhs, which derives from the PIE *s(w)eks.
  • Seven derives from the Old English seofon, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *sebun, which derives from the PIE *septm.
  • Eight derives from the Old English eahta (or æhta), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *akhto, which derives from the PIE *okto(u).
  • Nine derives from the Old English nigen, which derives from the Proto-Germanic *niwun, which derives from the PIE newn.
  • Ten derives from the Old English ten (or tien), which derives from the Proto-Germanic *tehun, which derives from the PIE *dekm.

So, why are numbers called numbers? Because the early Proto-Indo-European speakers decided to use the word *nem- when they were dividing things up.

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