The Grammarphobia Blog

Doing the math on “aftermath”

Q: We were watching the news the other morning when the title card on the screen said “Sandy Aftermath.” My husband turned to me and asked: “Does the ‘math’ in ‘aftermath’ have anything to do with mathematics?” Could you enlighten us?

A: The “math” that’s part of “aftermath” is an entirely different noun from the one in “mathematics.” In fact, they came into English from two different routes—one from old Germanic sources and the other from Latin.

“Aftermath” got its start as an agricultural term associated with mowing. You might say its literal meaning is “after-mowing.”

The word entered the language in the 15th century as a compound of the prefix “after-” plus the noun “math,” which once meant a mowing or the portion of a crop that’s been mowed.

This sense of “math” is very old, dating back to Old English and beyond, to ancient Germanic sources.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the Old Saxon word maddag meant mowing day, and the Old High German mada is ultimately from the same Germanic base that gave us the word “mow.”

When first recorded in writing in the late 1400s, the OED says, “aftermath” meant “a second crop or new growth of grass (or occas. another plant used as feed) after the first has been mown or harvested.”

This example from 1601 is a good illustration of its use: “The grasse will be so high growne, that a man may cut it down and have a plentifull after-math for hay.” (From Philemon Holland’s translation of Pliny’s Natural History.)

The agricultural sense of “aftermath” has survived into modern times, as illustrated by this citation from Heather Smith Thomas’s book Getting Started With Beef and Dairy Cattle (2005): “They can’t graze cornfield aftermath where herbicides or pesticides were used.”

But today “aftermath” is more familiar in its figurative sense, defined by the OED as “a period or state of affairs following a significant event, esp. when that event is destructive or harmful.”

The figurative usage dates back to the mid-17th century. The OED’s earliest citation is from Robert Fletcher’s 1656 translation of Martial’s Ex Otio Negotium: “Rash Lover speak what pleasure hath Thy Spring in such an Aftermath?”

Here’s another figurative example, from the writer David Hartley Coleridge’s Essays and Marginalia (1851): “The aftermath of the great rebellion.”

We know you’re still wondering about the other “math,” the one that’s about numbers. This “math,” first recorded in 1847, is an American short form of “mathematics.” The British shortened form, “maths,” was first recorded in 1911.

The long form, “mathematics,” was first recorded in the mid-16th century, according to the OED, and developed from the earlier adjective “mathematic,” which dates from the 1300s.

Originally, as the OED says, “mathematics” was a collective term for “geometry, arithmetic, and certain physical sciences involving geometrical reasoning, such as astronomy and optics.”

Later it came to mean “the science of space, number, quantity, and arrangement, whose methods involve logical reasoning and usually the use of symbolic notation, and which includes geometry, arithmetic, algebra, and analysis.” To most of us, that means numbers.

We owe “mathematics” to Latin (mathematica), which got it from Greek (mathematikos). The Greek is derived from the noun mathema (science, learning, knowledge) which is related to the verb manthanein (to learn). The word “polymath” (a person of great and varied learning) has a similar Greek etymology.

As John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins, etymologically the word “mathematics” means “something learned.” He points out that “from earliest times the notion of ‘science’”—mathema in Greek—“was bound up with that of ‘numerical reasoning.’”

The ultimate source of the Greek mathematikos, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, is an ancient Indo-European compound reconstructed as mens-dhe.

The first element means mind and the second means direct or toward, so the compound means “direct the mind (toward),” Chambers says.

This compound, the dictionary adds, has filtered down into many languages, including Sanskrit (medha, wisdom) and Avestan (mazda, memory). In case you’re wondering, Avestan is the language of Zoroastrian scripture.

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