Etymology of ‘Eleven’

Now here’s something I bet you didn’t know – where does the word ‘eleven’ come from?

A cousin of mine was wondering, so I looked it up. Apparently, it comes from the Old English word ‘endleofan’, meaning ‘One left’, that is, eleven is ‘one left over’, after you take away ten.

If you peer closely at the words, you can imagine, perhaps, how they’ve changed over the centuries –

  • ‘end’ or ‘en’ slowly changeing its vowel sound to become ‘one’,
  • ‘leofan’ losing the ‘n’, the ‘f’ changing to a ‘v’ to become ‘leave’/’left’
  • ‘endleofan’ transmuting through the generations to ‘eleven’

The number ‘twelve’, similarly, comes from the Old English words meaning ‘two left’

In English, the numbers thirteen to nineteen are built very differently – instead of saying ‘three left’, ‘four left’ and so on, we say ‘three and ten’, ‘four and ten’ – at least that’s what our modern words ‘thirteen’, ‘fourteen’ and so on used to mean. And if you’re wondering why we say ‘fifteen’ instead of ‘fiveteen’ – it’s because the old English word for 5 was actually ‘fif’. The old word for ‘three’ was ‘thri’, something in between our modern ‘three’ and the roots for ‘thirteen’ and ‘thirty’. My 3 year old son hates these exceptions, and sometimes skips them altogether when counting (for example, I heard him counting the other day “… 10, 11, 12, 14, 16, 17, 18, 19…”)

Lithuanian uses words meaning ‘left over’ for all the teens from 11 to 19. The Lithuanian words for 11, 12, 13, 14 and so on, all the way up to 19, mean ‘one left over’, ‘two left over’, and so on, all the way up to ‘nine left over’. If English were like that, I suppose we’d count : “ten, eleven, twelve, thrilve, fouleven, fifleven, sixleven, sevenleven, eightleven, nineleven” or something similar.

It would be almost worth it, to have a word like “sevenleven” in our dictionaries!

2 thoughts on “Etymology of ‘Eleven’”

  1. Thanks for the etymology! I gave this as a homework assignment for my fifth graders. I wanted them to find out why we say eleven and twelve. You have a very well written answer to the question. Better than I could have explained!

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