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