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Why Is It 'Eleven, Twelve' Instead of 'Oneteen, Twoteen'?

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English number words are pretty logical after a point. From twenty-one to ninety-nine, the same principle applies: you say the tens place followed by the units place. But the teens are different. Not only does the ten (which is where the word teen comes from) come after the units place (10+7 is not teen-seven but seventeen), eleven and twelve don't fit in at all.

Eleven and twelve come from the Old English words endleofan and twelf, which can be traced back further to a time when they were ain+lif and twa+lif. So what did this –lif mean? The best guess etymologists have is that it is from a root for "to leave." Ainlif is "one left (after ten)" and twalif is "two left (after ten)."

So then the question is, why don't we have threelif, fourlif, fiflif, sixlif and so on? The answer has to do with the development of number systems over history. A long, long time ago, when the number words were first being formed, most people didn't have much reason to distinguish numbers above ten. In fact, some languages of primitive cultures only have number words for one, two, and many. So the basic number words up to ten formed first, then they were extended a bit with the –lif ending.

Maybe there was a threelif, fourlif type system, but 11 and 12 were used more often in daily life. Many number systems are based on 12 because it's divisible by the most numbers, and because you can count to 12 on one hand by using your thumb to count three knuckles on each of the other fingers. (We have the word dozen because 12 is so useful). If 11 and 12 are being used more frequently, the forms for them will stick, even when another system starts to develop. 

You can extend that idea to other number words. We have more irregularities of pronunciation in the tens (twenty, thirty, fifty instead of twoty, threety, fivety) because we've been making everyday use of those numbers for longer than we have for two hundred, three hundred, and five hundred). Thousand is an old word, but its original sense was "a great multitude," a non-numerically-specific, but very useful idea. The words we needed earliest, and used the most frequently are usually the most irregular.

So the short answer is, we created words for 11 and 12 a long time ago by calling them "one left after ten" and "two left after ten." They were more useful to us than the higher numbers, so we said them more and they became a habit that we couldn't shake.

Kids always notice the weird bits about language better than grownups. Thanks to five-year-old Katie English for this fabulous question!

See Also...

Why Does 'Will Not' Become 'Won't'?
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Why Isn't 'Arkansas' Pronounced Like 'Kansas'?
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Why Is There an 'R' in Mrs.?

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Big Questions
Why Is the American Flag Displayed Backwards on Military Uniforms?
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In 1968, famed activist Abbie Hoffman decided to crash a meeting of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington by showing up in a shirt depicting the American flag. Hoffman was quickly surrounded by police, who ripped his shirt off and arrested him for desecration of the Red, White, and Blue.

Hoffman’s arrest is notable today because, while it might be unpatriotic to some, wearing the American flag, burning it, or otherwise disrespecting it is not a violation of any federal law. In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that it would be unconstitutional to prosecute any such action. Still, Americans have very fervent and strict attitudes toward displaying the flag, a longstanding symbol of our country’s freedom. According to the U.S. Flag Code, which was first published in 1923, you shouldn’t let the flag touch the ground or hang it upside-down. While there’s no express prohibition about reversing the image, it’s probably a safe bet you shouldn’t do that, either.

Yet branches of the U.S. military are often spotted with a seeming mirror reflection of the flag on their right shoulder. If you look at a member in profile, the canton—the rectangle with the stars—is on the right. Isn’t that backwards? Shouldn’t it look like the flag on the left shoulder?

The American flag appears on a military uniform
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Not really. The flag is actually facing forward, and it’s not an optical illusion.

When a service member marches or walks forward, they assume the position of a flagpole, with the flag sewn on their uniform meant to resemble a flag flapping in the breeze. With the canton on the right, the flag would be fluttering behind them. If it were depicted with the canton on the left, the flag would be flying backward—as though it had been hung by the stripes instead of the stars nearest to the pole. The position of the flag is noted in Army Regulation 670-1, mandating the star field should face forward. The official term for this depiction is “reverse side flag.”

As for Hoffman: His conviction was overturned on appeal. In 1970, while at a flag-themed art show in New York, he was invited to get up and speak. He wore a flag shirt for the occasion.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
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Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

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