1. The cardinal number equal to 10 + 1.
2. The 11th in a set or sequence.
3. Something with 11 parts or members, especially a football team.
[Middle English elleven, from Old English endleofan; see oi-no- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]
e·leven adj. & pron.
Word History: It is fairly easy to see how the words for the numbers thirteen through nineteen are related to the numbers three through nine. The thir- in thirteen, for example, sounds somewhat like three, and the suffix -teen resembles ten. But what about the words eleven and twelve? Eleven doesn't sound anything like one, and although twelve is spelled with the same tw- found in two, twice, and twin, what is the -elve? English probably inherited all the words for the numbers eleven through nineteen from Germanic, the protolanguage that is the common ancestor of English and its close relatives, the other Germanic languages like Dutch, German, and the Scandinavian languages. The English words that end in -teen descend from compounds formed in the Germanic protolanguage from the words for the numbers three through nine added to a form of the Germanic word for ten. This form of the word for ten eventually evolved into Modern English -teen. The Modern English words eleven and twelve descend from ancient Germanic compounds, too, and the speakers of the Germanic protolanguage would have recognized the meaningful parts of the compounds just as easily as English speakers recognize the meaningful parts of thirteen and fourteen. Modern English eleven descends from Old English endleofan, and related forms in the various Germanic languages point back to an original Germanic compound *ainlif, "eleven." *Ainlif is composed of *ain-, "one," the same as our one, and the suffix *-lif from the Germanic root *lib-, "to adhere, remain, remain left over." Thus, eleven is literally "one-left" (over, that is, past ten). Similarly, twelve comes from an ancient Germanic *twalif, "two-left" (over past ten). However, as Germanic evolved into Old English, and Old English into Modern English, changes in pronunciation obscured the meaningful elements in these compounds so that it was no longer possible to see how eleven was related to one.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2022 by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.
Indo-European & Semitic Roots Appendices
Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:
The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.