"In the First Place, in the Second Place"

Have you ever heard that the phrases “in the first place, in the second place…” may have originated with memory palaces? Does anyone know where this idea originates? I’ve heard this bit of information repeated many times, but have never researched its origin until now. Is it true?

Wikipedia says that the source is Stanley Finger’s Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations Into Brain Function.

Finger’s book says:

It is thought that the mnemonic strategies dissociating memories with various physical settings may have given rise to the phrases “in the first place,” “in second place,” and so on. (Burnham, 1888)

So I looked up Burnham’s 1888 publication, Memory, Historically and Experimentally Considered. I. An Historical Sketch of the Older Conceptions of Memory. Burnham writes:

The main principles of the ancient mnemonic systems were somewhat as follows: The thing to be remembered was localized by the imagination in some definite place—say in a room of a real or imaginary house; and, if necessary, a concrete symbol as vivid as possible was associated with it. Often a large house was visualized in the imagination, and the rooms, walls, furniture, statues, etc., associated with things to be remembered. To recall anything it was only necessary to rummage about in this imaginary house until one found what was desired. This device was much used among the Romans as an aid to oratory; and it has been said that the phrases, in the first place, in the second place, and the like originated in this ancient practice.

Only the two following sources are listed in the footnotes there, and they are citations for the paragraph directly above that one. The sources are:

Cicero: De Oratore, II, 86-88; Rhet. ad Herenn., Ill, 16-24. Quintilian : Inst. XI, 2. Cf. also Pliny: Hist. Nat., VII, 24.

Is Burnham the earliest known source of this information? The phrase, “it has been said”, is not a very reliable source.

Here is a screenshot of the passage:

An excerpt from Burnham’s Memory, Historically and Experimentally Considered

I also searched through Frances Yates’ The Art of Memory for mentions of “first place”, but didn’t find this information mentioned.

Does this idiom appear in other languages? How far back does usage go?

I checked Google’s Ngram viewer and it turned up results going back hundreds of years:

Here is one example from a 1673 text called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Volume 8:

In the first place

While it may be true that the origin of the phrases “in the first place, in the second place…” is related to the method of loci, I wasn’t able to find any solid evidence tracing it past Burnham. If anyone has more information, please leave a comment below.

Update: Based on a comment below, I was able to do some more research.

In 2005, Ron Kendall asked:

What is the origin of the expression, “in the first place”? Donald Howard, in his book on Geoffrey Chaucer life (which won the national book award for biography some 20 years ago,) inferred that it had to do with how medieval people used mental placemarks as mnemonic devices.

R. Berg replied:

The Oxford English Dictionary attributes “in the first (second, next, etc.) place” to this sense of the word: “A step or point in the order of progression.” The first cited use is dated 1639. No support there for Howard’s idea.

I checked the OED online and it says1 about place:

A step or point in an order of progression or consideration. Freq. preceded by in with an ordinal number or its equivalent, as in the first place: firstly, first in order; at the beginning, to begin with. Similarly in the next place, in the last place, etc.

It gives these early usages:

  • 1533 T. More Debellacyon Salem & Bizance ii. xx. f cxxxvii, I not onely in the fyrst place rehersed hym as he spake hym self, but afterward also in the seconde place I toke the payne for hym to mende his collacyon.
  • 1589 G. Puttenham Arte Eng. Poesie ii. xiv. 105 So in the first place receiuing aptly the sharpe accent he is made long: afterward receiuing the flat accent more aptly then the sharpe.
  • 1639 Act in Arch. Maryland (1883) I. 69 All debts growing due for wine..or other licquors shall be paid in the last place after all other debts are satisfied.
  • 1660 F. Brooke tr. V. Le Blanc World Surveyed 325 Two thousand..lost their lives, and the Priests in the first place.
  • 1665 T. Herbert Some Years Trav. (new ed.) 393, I shall therefore in the first place see what [etc.].
  • 1711 J. Addison Spectator No. 39. ¶7, I must in the next place observe [etc.].
  • 1776 A. Smith Inq. Wealth of Nations II. v. iii. 551 In the first place, this sinking fund..is generally altogether inadequate for paying..the whole debt..; and, in the second place, this fund is almost always applied to other purposes.
  • 1814 J. Austen Mansfield Park III. ii. 33 He had vanity, which strongly inclined him, in the first place, to think she did love him..and which, secondly [etc.].
  • 1827 D. Douglas Jrnl. 4 June (1914) 271 In the first place, two horses would be requisite to carry my papers, blanket, and food..; in the next place [etc.].
  • 1888 J. Bryce Amer. Commonw. II. lii. 301 In the first place, frost strikes deeper in America… In the next place, the streets are more often disturbed.

Donald Howard’s book, Chaucer: his life, his works, his world, includes a mention, but I don’t have the book to check the references. Here is an excerpt from Google:

Chaucer: in the first place

It seems possible that this phrase originates with the method of loci, but I haven’t found any definitive source yet. If anyone has more information, please comment below.

1 Unfortunately, the page isn't available any more, but it was located at `http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/144864?redirectedFrom=in+the+first+place#eid29909150`.



Josh Cohen

Josh Cohen 07 Dec 2021

Thanks – I've updated the blog post.

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