Tuesday, June 30, 2020

261: The Mystery of the S

Audio Link

Recently, my wife jokingly suggested a rather straightforward topic to me, and I was surprised to realize I had never discussed it in this podcast.   She asked me if I had ever explained why we Americans call the topic of this podcast “math”, while across the pond in the UK, everyone calls it “maths”, with an S at the end?    Given this podcast’s title, it seems like something we should discuss at some point.   So here we go.

Considering it initially, I think we need to figure out whether the word is singular or plural.    It seems pretty singular to me:   as you may have guessed from our variety of topics in previous episodes, I consider “math” to be a collective noun referring to a broad and general field of study, which includes algebra, geometry, topology, calculus, etc.    It’s an abbreviation for the word “mathematics”, which has the same meaning, and whose final S is just a coincidence rather than marking a plural.   However, if you view each of these areas as an individual “math”, you could argue that we then need the plural “maths” to cover them all, with “maths” being its own plural word rather than an abbreviation of “mathematics”.     Or, on the other hand, maybe “maths” is still singular, but a better abbreviation of “mathematics” since it contains the same final letter.    Personally, my deciding factor is that I also find the combination of a “th” and “s” sound in succession somewhat awkward to pronounce.

Naturally, this discussion doesn’t seem to be leading to a clear answer.    So, to dig further, I turned to the ultimate arbiter of truth, the Internet.     And by looking at a few articles there, I’m now more confused than before.    Apparently both “math” and “maths” arose as independent words sometime in the 20th century, descending from previous written abbreviations that were not actually used in spoken language.    According to some online articles, there was a written “maths.” spotted in a letter from 1818, while an early “math.” appeared in 1847.   But since both of them had dots after, indicating they were consciously thought of as abbreviations rather than words, such early uses aren’t very definitive.   

Another thing to think about is the relationship with other words that are similar in nature.   Economics is a collective noun for another broad field of study, similar to mathematics— so why do we always simplify it to “econ”, with no S, rather than “econs” with an S?   That isn’t quite an absolute proof though, since I don’t think ‘econ’ is fully considered a word in the same way ‘math’ is; it’s still more of an abbreviation.     My word processor even labels it as a misspelling.  The Guardian also makes the amusing point that the US-UK difference is exactly the opposite for the word “sport” or “sports”, with Americans referring to “sports”, while the Brits use “sport”.    Does this say something about the intellectual vs athletic tendencies on either side of the pond?

The online articles linked in the show notes point out some other interesting tidbits.   There’s also an 1854 reference to “math’s”, with an apostrophe-s, making it sound more like a possessive ending rather than a pluralization, an intriguing variant on our reasoning.   Or it may be that it was just a writer who was a bit confused about grammar in general.    There’s also an Old English word “math” that refers to the cutting of crops.  Could the need of farmers to measure out fields and calculate proper planting rates have somehow contributed to the modern word?    A final note is that the word “maths” didn’t really become the definitive form in the UK until around 1970.   Could this have been a case of snobby Europeans wanting to distinguish themselves from those crass Americans in the era of Nixon?

Anyway, it looks like there is no ultimate definitive answer.    You’ll just have to see which one flows better on your tongue, and proceed from there.

And this has been your math mutation for today.