The hidden one in once and eleven

In my other blog recently I showed a photograph that included an eleven-spotted cucumber beetle, an insect to which entomologists have given the species name undecimpunctata. The -punct- is from Latin punctum ‘point, spot, dot,’ the ancestor of Spanish punto and (through French) English point. Latin undecim was a still-transparent combination of unus ‘one’ and decim (or decem) ‘ten.’ As Latin evolved into Spanish, undecim became once, which is phonetically simpler but no longer transparent.

The American Heritage Dictionary explains that the Old English word that gave rise to the modern eleven was endleofan, a compound that had developed from Germanic *ain- ‘one’ and *lif- ‘to remain.’ In other word (and to the delight of arithmetic teachers), eleven is the number such that after you subtract our numerical base of ten, one remains.

In looking back at the title of today’s post, I realized that once is ambiguous: I intended it to be the Spanish once, but English also has an identically spelled (even if differently pronounced) once. The English word used to be spelled ones, a possessive form (before an apostrophe came into use to mark such a form) that we can interpret as ‘of one [time].’

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. whilldtkwriter
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 08:07:10

    It makes me crazy to see so much usage of “once” when “when” is the intent. People and corporations use “once” all the time! “Once”, for avoiding ambiguity, should clearly apply to only “one time”. And having taken Spanish, I know about once as 11. 🙂


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 15, 2014 @ 08:50:07

      I wasn’t aware of that overuse of “once” in the corporate world, Wanda, but I know how businesses and professions love to latch on to a word or phrase and use it to death. One that I’ve become aware of is “successfully.” It seems I’m never told that I’ve logged out of a website, but always that I’ve successfully logged out. That’s part of a general pattern of weakening a word and then feeling the need to prop up the weakened word with a modifier. For example, some people stick the word “actively” in front of many a verb; such people are never looking for something, but always actively looking for it.


  2. kathryningrid
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 14:32:15

    Even the words themselves are having some fun with wordplay behind your back, apparently! Great post. Does this mean it’s time to take a break for ‘elevenses’?


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 16, 2014 @ 15:28:37

      I like the way you put it: “Even the words themselves are having some fun with wordplay behind your back.” Your metaphysical question about elevenses reminds me that I sometimes like to say (or at least think) things like eleventy-three for 113 and tenty-six for 106.


  3. shoreacres
    Jun 19, 2014 @ 19:00:26

    This is especially fun now that I have the patented Steve Schwartzman method for multiplying elevens.

    But that punctum is interesting, too. I thought about punctilious, and punctual. Now I wonder if our idiomatic expression for punctuality — being somewhere “on the dot” — might also be rooted in punctum.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      Jun 19, 2014 @ 19:35:13

      I can’t take credit for creating the shortcut for multiplying by 11—it’s been known for centuries—but only for trying to keep it alive in an age of ubiquitous calculating devices.

      Yes, I have no compunction in saying that Latin punctum is behind punctilious ‘paying attention to the fine points’ and punctual ‘arriving on the dot,’ as you suggested.


  4. Trackback: Prime | Spanish-English Word Connections

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