English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Our how many-eth beer?

Q: How come we don’t say “many-eth” in English? Example: “This is the how many-eth beer we’ve had?”

A: That’s the kind of question we ask ourselves after having a few too many Becks. And if we don’t know how many we’ve had, we’ve probably had too many.

In sober—that is, standard—English, we’d say something like “How much beer have we had” or “How many beers have we had?” Yet for some reason we don’t use “many-eth” to ask questions like this.

The “-th” suffix is used in its numerical sense with ordinal numbers, like “fifth,” “eleventh,” and “thirty-fourth,” as well as looser ordinals like “nth,” “zillionth,” “umpteenth,” and so on.

When an ordinal number is derived from a cardinal number ending in “y,” the “y” becomes “i” and the “-th” ending becomes “-eth.” For example, “twenty” becomes “twentieth,” and “fifty” becomes “fiftieth.”

The Oxford English Dictionary says the “-th” ending has been used this way since Anglo-Saxon days. The “th” sound was represented then by the Old English letters thorn or eth.

The OED says the “-th” suffix is ultimately derived from –tos, an ancient Indo-European superlative ending.

The “-th” ending is also used to form nouns from verbs (“growth,” “stealth,” and so on) and from adjectives (“health,” “truth,” etc.).

In addition, the “-eth” ending was used to form many third person singular verbs that are now considered archaic: “goeth,” “sendeth,” and so on. But as the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology notes, this ending is still used as a literary device: The Iceman Cometh.

Like “umpteen,” the adjective “many” refers to a large but indefinite number.  We say “umpteenth,” so why then don’t we say “many-eth”? Well, for whatever reason, it’s not considered idiomatic English.

Despite that, we’ve found lots of examples of the usage on the Web, including many from writers whose English is otherwise beyond reproach.

Here’s an example from a review of a concert in which Joshua Bell is the soloist in a performance of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto: “Here he was, playing it for the … how many-eth time?”

Does “many-eth” have a future? Who knows? If enough people use it for enough time, “many-eth” may become standard English some day. Not yet, though.

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