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Why do we write 1st but not 2:00pm?
April 14, 2012 7:39 PM   Subscribe

Why do we write 1st but not 2:00pm?

My best guess: Ordinal indicators came about as a shortcut in scribal culture and were carried over into print as superscript characters, whereas AM/PM came about after the advent of print. Can someone confirm this for me? Am I way off?
posted by denriguez to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
Okay, this is a guess too, but maybe it's got something to do with the -st being a part of the word, while pm is something you say after the word?
posted by thirteenkiller at 7:42 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


My guess is because they serve two different functions: "st"/"nd"/"rd" in superscript is meant to indicate a syllable sound, while PM and AM are abbreviations: Ante Meridian and Post Meridian
posted by absalom at 7:44 PM on April 14, 2012


My guess is because they serve two different functions: "st"/"nd"/"rd" in superscript is meant to indicate a syllable sound, while PM and AM are abbreviations: Ante Meridian and Post Meridian

Yeah, I suppose that's probably a big part of it. The OED shows post meridien as appearing around 1660, which is well after the advent of print. Still, though, is it even possible to confirm that 1st is an extension of script practices, while 2:00pm (which is how we write it by hand, as well) is a result of print conventions?

Also, I know that superscript in ordinal indicators is kind of outmoded now, but I remain curious. :)
posted by denriguez at 7:53 PM on April 14, 2012


Two post meridian is the second hour after noon

See it?
posted by roboton666 at 7:58 PM on April 14, 2012


Oh, yes, roboton, I see it and totally understand where we get am/pm (thanks for the explanation, though!). I guess my question is more about why we use superscript for some things and not for others.
posted by denriguez at 8:09 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


Superscript was/is used for abbreviations of single words: Jos, No, 2nd, whereas p.m. is an initialism/acronym for post meridiem, and requires no differentiation.
posted by zamboni at 8:24 PM on April 14, 2012 [5 favorites]


It would have been consistent, I guess, to write it pst merdm or something like that.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:28 PM on April 14, 2012


I second that it's all about the abbreviations vs. initialisms. I can't think of an English-language initialism that uses superscript, and tons of abbreviations that do or did (thank you, mom, for conscripting me for "figuring out what on earth this thing says" duties in the course of your genealogy obsession.)
posted by SMPA at 8:38 PM on April 14, 2012


If you're interested about historical manuscript abbreviations, you'll want to read about paleography and scribal abbreviation.
posted by zamboni at 8:52 PM on April 14, 2012


Yeah, I suppose that's probably a big part of it. The OED shows post meridien as appearing around 1660, which is well after the advent of print. Still, though, is it even possible to confirm that 1st is an extension of script practices, while 2:00pm (which is how we write it by hand, as well) is a result of print conventions?

Medieval scribes definitely had a similar practice in Latin, where the end of a number would be written superscript. I believe (although I am no expert) it was used in order to distinguish a fraction from the cardinal when using Roman numerals. For example, 8 would be written "VIII" and 1/8 as "VIIIo". The superscript "o" standing for the ablative singular ending of the word "octavo", used because (I think, I have poor Latin) it was the correct case to describe something being divided "into eighths".

Of course, that's not the ordinal, but rather a fraction. However, English doesn't distinguish between the two in word alone, but rather in phrasing. So, "eighth" in English could mean either "the one coming after seven" and "one of eight pieces" without context. Thus we might have copied the scribal tradition for fractions but see it easily jump over into ordinals.

This is all supposition, so unless somebody comes along with a definite answer, be wary of what I say.
posted by Jehan at 8:55 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


You may find an answer on Shady Characters, which is a fascinating blog about historical typography. Consider emailing the proprietor.
posted by Nomyte at 9:22 PM on April 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is my first question on AskMe, and it certainly won't be my last. This has led me to so many new directions and sources. Thanks, everyone!
posted by denriguez at 9:54 PM on April 14, 2012 [2 favorites]


Language evolves out of usage and is often inconsistent as a result. I don't think you'll get anything more definitive than you already have in the previous answers. I still wonder why they write A/C for Airconditioning.
posted by Obscure Reference at 4:03 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another interesting thing you may want to look at is the representation of ordinals in different languages:

German: 2. the dot represeting -te
French: 2e
Dutch: 2e
Spanish and Italian use a superscript 2ยบ

And these days I think in English the -st, -nd, -th etc are actually not that often superscripted. probably due to the difficulty in doing so on computer. Most people these days will simply write 2nd.
posted by mary8nne at 4:18 AM on April 15, 2012


I can't think of an English-language initialism that uses superscript

™ is the only one that occurs to me.
posted by flabdablet at 7:15 AM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just a thought - the "st" in 1st is superfluous information (if told to go to 1 Street on April 1 you can still get there) but the PM in 9 AM/PM is required information (if told to meet for coffee at 9 on a long day, either 9 is reasonable).

This is a totally uninformed thought, just my reasoning. I think zamboni has the real reason here.
posted by maryr at 9:46 AM on April 15, 2012


I agree, zamboni's answer nails it.

Regarding air conditioning as A/C - perhaps simply because the abbreviation AC already has a common usage? Note it's also common to use c/o for "care of" when addressing letters.
posted by iotic at 10:43 AM on April 15, 2012


I wouldn't look for something like this to be logically consistent in the first place. Basically, "historical usage" is what governs this sort of convention, not any sort of hard-and-fast rule. To a large extent the "rules" of grammar are invented post hoc to describe existing usage.

Heck, if there were any consistency, it would be in the suffixes themselves! Then it might all have just compressed to a single symbol.

A/C probably retains that as a leftover from mid-20th-century real estate and apartment abbreviations, which also include(d) D/W for dishwasher and W/M for washing machine (and later W/D for washer and dryer). Before widespread modern plumbing, H/W would mean "hot water" and H/C "hot and cold [running water]". Also, W/U for walk-up. Thus there was a family of such abbreviations due to a common context (i.e. per-word classified ad pricing).
posted by dhartung at 5:21 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]


1st, 2nd, and the rest are survivors of a large group of scribal contractions commonly used in early modern manuscripts to mark the omission of medial letters. These include ye (the), yr (your), Sr (Sir), wth (with), and mt (in words ending -ment). A professional scribe writing at speed would use these contractions very frequently: so, for example, 'the King's Majesty's Letter to the Parliament' might be written as: ye Kgs Maties Lr to ye Parliamt. Many of them gradually dropped out of use in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though some of them survived in the more informal context of private correspondence: it's not unusual to find nineteenth-century letters signed yrs afftly (yours affectionately), for example.

Acronyms and initialisms like a.m. and p.m, e.g., i.e., et al., are in a different category, as they don't include a terminal letter marking the omission of medial letters. I don't think it has anything to do with them being 'after the advent of print'; after all, manuscript and print exist side by side, and 'script practices' and 'print conventions' (to use your terms) often borrow from each other. A seventeenth-century scribe might easily use the abbreviation n.s. (new style) interchangeably with the contraction so no (stylo novo).
posted by verstegan at 7:34 AM on April 27, 2012 [1 favorite]


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