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Math? Maths? Mathesises? Mathelesalizes? Mathematisessizes?
July 11, 2009 8:21 PM   Subscribe

When did "Maths" change to "Math" in American English? Or is it the other way around?

I'm curious to know more about the origin of the math/maths break in the English language. Growing up in the United States, the shortening of mathematics to "math" has always sounded correct to me. But I know in the UK that "maths" tends to be more common. What I'm wondering is how/when/why this shift happened? Is it based on the long form spelling of "mathematics"? Is it based on the sound when pronounced (and is a teacher of other subjects with the "s" sound treated in a similar manner (e.g. a Sciences teacher rather than a Science teacher))? Or is it just one of those weird differences with no explanation other than that is how it's always been done? Any background you can provide is appreciated. Information on how other slight changes between our English forms happened is also welcome. Not as interested in total word differences (lorry/truck, lift/elevator, etc.) so much as the same word with slight variance.
posted by fishmasta to Writing & Language (39 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
According to the Online Etymotology Dictionary:
Math is the Amer.Eng. shortening, attested from 1890; the British preference, maths is attested from 1911.
posted by movicont at 8:31 PM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm from the U.S., but one of my elementary school teachers was from the UK. I always thought it was interesting that she said "stuffs" instead of "stuff," as in "Get your stuffs out of your cubbies and come back here in a minute or so."
posted by umbú at 8:35 PM on July 11, 2009


Don't know the answer to the question but I would note that an apparent opposite situation is "sports" and "sport".
posted by XMLicious at 9:18 PM on July 11, 2009 [2 favorites]


In the context of discussing chemistry, a few emerge aluminum, carbon, bismuth. I worked for a British company where such terms would arise in conversation, and "both sides of the pond" as we referred to our meeting, would not immediately recognize the word initially.

The British get into standardizing a lot of categories, beginning with scientists like Newton, and making it a sort of cultural hallmark. If you are familiar with the artist of Damien Hirst, he takes up these sort of cultural pinnings as a major theme in his work. At any rate, I think this bit of British history often resulted in the UK feeling that the American English was wrong.

I found it fascinating that certain words in the US which are not obscene will elicit blushing in a British native, and vice versa for Americans. Our company had some rather hilarious episodes with these word differences, but the physiological response coded to the word was really fascinating.
posted by effluvia at 9:18 PM on July 11, 2009


Another: British: the patient is in hospital. American: the patient is in the hospital.
posted by effluvia at 9:24 PM on July 11, 2009


XMLicious: "I would note that an apparent opposite situation is "sports" and "sport"

Didn't think about that one, but I guess it does work in both directions.

effluvia: "I found it fascinating that certain words in the US which are not obscene will elicit blushing in a British native, and vice versa for Americans"

Ha! Please give some examples! I love to learn about these little differences in one generally common tongue.
posted by fishmasta at 9:25 PM on July 11, 2009



I think fishmasta is talking about a C word, and I don't mean cow, which is quite common among the queen's people and a real shocker for those of us in the US.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:38 PM on July 11, 2009


Regarding "obscene" Americanisms:

fanny pack (fanny=vagina)
pants (underwear. Try telling someone your pants are wet and see what happens)
Randy (horny. Not a common name in the UK!)

And in the opposite direction, the English call erasers "rubbers." Tee hee.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 9:41 PM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fanny is another one. Refers to the buttocks in the US, to the vagina in the UK.
posted by torquemaniac at 9:46 PM on July 11, 2009


I haven't lived in England for 45 years, but it used to be that when an Englishman offered to "knock you up about 10" it meant that he would call on you about 10.

It might be regional, but when I was little a sick person confined to bed on the instruction of a physician was said to be "in bed with the doctor".

Apparently in Canada we got the British version of the Harry Potter books. I've read that American versions translated "pudding" to "dessert" (it's perfectly possible in England to have pie for pudding), "jumper" to "sweater". Having not read the American versions I don't know if it's true.
posted by angiep at 9:48 PM on July 11, 2009


"Get your stuffs out" umbú?

This English person never heard another English person pluralize "stuff". Sure you heard that right/she was English?

I notice that "Twat", very tame in English, elicits blushes in my American friends.
posted by merocet at 9:50 PM on July 11, 2009


effluvia, how do the English refer to carbon and bismuth? I'm familiar with the aluminum/aluminium debate, but I wasn't aware there was anything similar with any other elements.
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 9:52 PM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


From the Oxford English Dictionary:

Math:
N. Amer. colloq.

Brit. /ma{vdftheta}/, U.S. /mæ{vdftheta}/ Forms: 18- math, 18- math. (with point). [Shortened <>
Mathematics (esp. as a subject of study at school or college).
Cf. MATHS n. (the usual British colloquial abbreviation).
1847 W. G. HAMMOND Diary 4 June in G. F. Whicher Remembrance of Amherst (1946) 120 It rained so that we had a math. lesson indoors. 1878 N.Y. Herald 10 June 3/5 Bad enough to get found on math..as I did to-day... Found deficient in mathematics. 1891 R. F. MURRAY Scarlet Gown 71 You see, I'm in for Math. again, And certain to be ploughed. 1899 J. LONDON Let. 24 Oct. (1966) 62 She's well up in the higher math. 1916 T. WOLFE Let. Sept. (1958) 4, I hope I will do well in all my studies and my guess is I'll have to ‘bone’ on math. 1961 C. WINSTON Hours Together (1962) vii. 139 There was Morton Kersh, with the math book propped against the milk bottle on the kitchen table. 1988 J. GLEICK Chaos 250 A physics student would take a math course.


Maths:
colloq.

Brit. /ma{vdftheta}s/, U.S. /mæ{vdftheta}s/ Forms: 19- maths, 19- maths. (with point). [Shortened <>-S suffix2 (compare the form mathy recorded from Manchester Grammar School in J. S. Farmer Public School Word-book (1900)). Compare earlier MATH n.3 and French maths (1856 in form math's).]

Mathematics (esp. as studied at school).
Cf. MATH n.3 (the usual colloquial abbreviation in North America).
1911 W. OWEN Let. 14 Sept. (1967) 81 The Answers to Maths. Ques. were given us all this morning. 1917 Wireless World Sept. 385 Extremely ‘rusty’ in ‘maths’. 1931 T. A. HARPER Windy Island (1934) II. iii. 122 He was not exactly a dub at Latin and maths. 1960 M. SPARK Bachelors x. 155 I've got a pile of homework to do. Maths papers. 1976 Beano 10 Jan. 2/2 Who will volunteer for the school chair?.. Anyone who doesn't will do extra maths. 1990 Times Educ. Suppl. 30 Nov. 13/5 The idea that more emphasis should be placed on coursework will not be welcomed by most maths teachers.


Oh and

-s, suffix2
A shortened form of the hypocoristic dim. suffix -SY, added to the same classes of words, as Babs, Toots; ducks (see DUCK n.1 3c), moms.


and
-sy
hypocoristic dim. suffix added to (i) proper names, as Betsy, Patsy, Topsy, also in the form -cy, as Nancy, (ii) common nouns, as babsy, ducksy, MOPSY, petsy, POPSY (popsy-wopsy). In adjectival formations expressing a degree of mocking contempt, as artsy-and-craftsy, artsy-fartsy, backwoodsy, bitsy, booksy, folksy, itsy-bitsy, teensy, etc., the suffix may be considered to represent a nursery form (cf. -Y6), or the pl. (or even a singular ending) in -s + -Y1.
posted by oceano at 10:06 PM on July 11, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here's an incredibly detailed breakdown of the math/s distinction at my favorite blog for such questions, Separated by a Common Language.

For all sorts of blush-inducing fun, see the posts tagged with taboo.
posted by KatlaDragon at 10:55 PM on July 11, 2009 [18 favorites]


Wow, KatlaDragon. That's more information than I ever expected, but the article (and the subsequent comments) was a real eye-opener. I think I'm going to have to bookmark this blog for later examination.

As a followup, how does it tend to be used in other English-speaking countries? Canada? Australia? Do they follow the United States or Britain?
posted by fishmasta at 11:52 PM on July 11, 2009


I found it fascinating that certain words in the US which are not obscene will elicit blushing in a British native

Sort of related, but an exboyfriend was british. We met while he was in the US on a work contract for a few months, so when he finally moved here, Americanisms - for lack of a better term - were new to him. Britishisms and british meanings for common american words were not new to me. I worked for a British organization, and in college my senior thesis was about britishisms (more than that, but that's a general idea). So, pretty familiar with british english. What I was unaware of was the strict distinction between "excuse me" and "pardon me" (this could be an american thing as well, and I had never heard it). I use them interchangeably, and I suppose I used "pardon me" more frequently. So, after months of living together and hundreds of "pardon me" mutterings, gas (intestinal) came up in conversation.

Apparently, he thought I must be the gassiest (I guess silent AND undeadly?) person because I constantly used "pardon me", and to him, that was used only when people passed gas or had some other bodily issue. "EXCUSE ME", to him, was what you said if you stepped on someone's toe or needed to pass by them in a narrow area. I spent the next couple weeks filled with retroactive embarrassment thinking about how many times I said pardon me, and what he must have been thinking.

As a followup, how does it tend to be used in other English-speaking countries? Canada? Australia? Do they follow the United States or Britain?

They use maths in australia, too. They also say grade 3 or grade 5 instead of fifth grade or third grade. I believe canadians say this as well.
posted by necessitas at 1:51 AM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


>It might be regional, but when I was little a sick person confined to bed on the instruction of a physician was said to be "in bed with the doctor".

Definitely regional but widespread - South Walians tend to say "bad in bed under the doctor".
posted by ceri richard at 2:55 AM on July 12, 2009


'Twat' is highly regional in the UK as to how offensive it is. Where I'm from (Yorkshire) it's mildly offensive to call someone a twat; it is also an entirely innocuous verb meaning to hit something hard ("That Ikea table were a right bugger to put together, ended up twatting half the bits to make em go in"). I then moved and scandalised half the office with my casual use of the word!

Also - I have never heard 'stuffs'.
posted by Coobeastie at 3:08 AM on July 12, 2009


I think fishmasta is talking about a C word, and I don't mean cow, which is quite common among the queen's people and a real shocker for those of us in the US.
Sorry if I'm being thick, but can you clarify what C word you are referring to? Surely you don't mean the word "cunt"? That's pretty much the most offensive word you can say in he UK (aside from racial slurs and the like). Are you referring to the word "crap"? Because that's useful to know if I ever go to the States, as it is indeed a very mild term in the UK.
posted by chill at 4:15 AM on July 12, 2009


And in the opposite direction, the English call erasers "rubbers."

My dear friend John spent a year abroad in Scotland. One night, he was in his room with a female friend studying for finals. They were each brushing up on their own subjects, jotting down notes and outlining potential essays. From this silence, she looks up to him and says, "Do you have a rubber."

He looks up at her, stunned. He blinks once, twice, and can't get a word out. Then they both burst into hysterical laughter, each realizing what just happened.
posted by piratebowling at 4:34 AM on July 12, 2009 [8 favorites]


I, british, have never heard anyone use the term stuffs instead of stuff. Twat is offensive but some people don't think it is because the don't know what it means (in school it was pretty much used as similar to 'prat'. I was horrified when I found out what it meant! These days I use fuckwit to mean the same thing (idiot essentially), I'm not sure that one is common in the US?! C*nt is universally shocking I think.

I'd never thought of rubber in that sense lol. Yes, here it is an eraser.

At uni we used to say we'd knock someone up in the morning meaning we would go knock on their door to see if they were up. But then we'd also say things like 'going to rape that dancefloor' and didn't think how offensive that might be to some, so there you go.

On the other hand, I still chuckle when Thomas Wanker's name comes up in the Buffy credits, and when Spike calls someone a wanker and talks about shagging. I'm pretty sure the bleeps would have censored those episodes when they were televised here!
posted by nunoidia at 5:03 AM on July 12, 2009


Fishmasta, emphasis in pronunciation for the chemical terms: CARbon/carBON, ALUminium/A-luminum, VI-tamins/vit-amins, are some examples. I had a British lecturing professor for chem and we all would be scrambling for translation when he delivered his lectures. Those were the days.

Others above have noted some of the obscenities that get lost in translation, so I will add one explained to me by my esteemed British colleagues:

The term "rodger" someone in the UK has extreme domination and unpleasant sexual domination connotations if you take my meaning. In light of that, an American celebrity extended his chicken empire to the UK, and put his trademark namesake over every doorway of his chain restaurants. Imagine what must go through the mind of an Englishman (or woman) when they see, in neon: "Kenny Rodgers chickens"
posted by effluvia at 7:48 AM on July 12, 2009 [1 favorite]


Suspenders to a brit is a garter belt.
Braces are for holding up your trousers.

Not a brit so IMHO
posted by Iron Rat at 8:41 AM on July 12, 2009


chills, "crap" is not a very bad word in the US. It's milder than "shit." Kids aren't supposed to say it kind of thing, and maybe old church ladies might be offended or something, but it's used pretty commonly here. It's not bleeped on TV or anything, either.

If it's not crap, it must be cunt, unless it's some other word that none of us are thinking of.
posted by ishotjr at 8:46 AM on July 12, 2009


By the way, Aluminum is the CORRECT name for the metal, and Aluminium is the BRITISHISATION of the word; they altered it to fit their orderly metal-naming suffix scheme.

I bring it up because it's one of the few instances where Americans are RIGHT and the Brits are WRONG about the "correct" spelling of a word.

Take that, King George!
posted by Aquaman at 10:21 AM on July 12, 2009


Apologies, I realize I had not answered the queries about the obscene word. The word I was referring to was "fanny". I remarked to my British boss that I "had no respect for people who just sit on their fanny and do no work"-----and watched him turn several shades of deep blue violet, when I realized my faux pas, and apologized to him, which made him turn ever different shades of colours. Yeah. Whilst the spelling differences are diving me 'round the bend at the moment.

You might also find it fascinating to follow the trail of near-obscenities. For example, "blimey" replaces "bloody" in polite company. My theory is that "bloody" has ancient Christian swearing references (e.g., Chaucer), but my friend who grew up in the UK believes it is a reference to menses.

Large billboards in Los Angeles referring to "Shagging" during Austin Powers or Disney's "Pirates" loaded with references to "buggering". Mister Rodgers' Neighborhood. Bottomless pit, really.
posted by effluvia at 10:30 AM on July 12, 2009


Yeah, effluvia, I remember watching a movie (can't remember which, but British), where a young man is knocked around by his fellows for refusing to use the word "blimey." Turns out that it is short for "God Blind Me" (if I'm false). I believe that "bloody" (one of the most frequently-used British invectives, after all forms of "bugger") is also blasphemous in origin (a frequent medieval English epithet was "God's Blood," or "Blood of God." Most Brits are quite shocked when they discover that "bugger" relates to anal sex. Similarly, "wanker" and "twat" have lost their original connotations in most uses. For a more complete treatment, see The Best of British: The American's Guide To Speaking British, who comment:
Maths - This is what you call math. It is short for "mathematics", the study of numbers. What I want to know is what you have done with the "s".
posted by Susurration at 11:35 AM on July 12, 2009


Whoops - lost the last part of my response:
So it looks like the difference is just a preference for shortening words in different ways. The Brits have a preference for plurals: Road Works, Sports, Maths. The Americans have a preference for singular forms: Road Work, Sport, Math. Just like emphasizing the second or the first syllable in pronunciation, it seems to have been due to a cultural separation at the turn of the 20th century.
posted by Susurration at 11:39 AM on July 12, 2009


I have read the word "stuffs" in books where it refers to fabrics and sewing notions like ribbons and trim. I can't remember what books (they were novels, probably) or whether the setting was British.
posted by jgirl at 11:46 AM on July 12, 2009


"I'm stuffed" means "I'm full" in the US, "I'm fucked" in the UK. Likewise, a "fag" is just a cigarette and "pissed" means drunk, not mad.

can we stop asterisking out vowels? we're mostly adults here.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:06 PM on July 12, 2009


There was a short TV series called Help a while back that touched on this. The conversation (I can't find the clip) went something like:

Brit: Maths...
Yank: ...Math...
Brit: No, it's maths. It's short for Mathematics.
Yank: So would you say Maths are beautiful?
Brit: No, I'd say Maths is beautiful...

Honestly, it was funnier coming from Paul Whitehouse.
posted by Acey at 12:09 PM on July 12, 2009


I have heard that the word "spaz" is pretty offensive in England, where it just means clumsy here in the US.
posted by gagoumot at 12:30 PM on July 12, 2009


Apparently in Canada we got the British version of the Harry Potter books. I've read that American versions translated "pudding" to "dessert" (it's perfectly possible in England to have pie for pudding), "jumper" to "sweater". Having not read the American versions I don't know if it's true.

This is correct. Also "trainers/sneakers", "sweets/candy" and like that.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:15 PM on July 12, 2009


Susurration, the Brits call it "sport" and the Americans call it "sports". That's the contradiction.
posted by vsync at 1:19 PM on July 12, 2009


Australia tends to go by the British terminology, mostly. Maths. And sport. 'Fanny' also means vagina here (the 'out on her fanny' reference in the theme song to 'The Nanny' just seems wrong).

Also, 'pissed' is drunk. 'Pissed off' is angry. And it's a jumper, not a sweater.

Imagine what must go through the mind of an Englishman (or woman) when they see, in neon: "Kenny Rodgers chickens"

"Roy Rogers!"
"Doesn't everybody?"
posted by andraste at 5:28 PM on July 12, 2009


"I'm stuffed" means "I'm full" in the US, "I'm fucked" in the UK.

To be fair, it means both. The first usage is well known and no less prime in the UK.
posted by wackybrit at 5:31 PM on July 12, 2009


Great link from KatlaDragon. I dunno if it's in there but when I first moved here I quickly learned to be very careful and not say, "Can you give me a ride?" when I needed someone to drive me somewhere and instead say, "Can you give me a lift?" They knew what I meant but the first sounds like I am propositioning someone.
posted by like_neon at 5:28 AM on July 13, 2009


As a Brit, I have never heard necessitas' excuse me vs pardon me thing, and every single person I know is well aware of the meanings behind bugger and twat and wanker.

If you're looking for a solid guide to the endless iterations of british profanity, I'd advise you to investigate Roger's Profanisaurus. Imaginative and properly filthy.

'Cunt' is of varying offensiveness in Britain, but it's not something you'd say in the average office. One of my scottish friends has been known to vouch for someone by saying 'Aye, he's a good cunt,' and in that setting it's totally inoffensive. I'd still never use the word in front of my parents.

The word seems to be much less gendered here, though - the times I've seen it used by Americans it's usually been as misogynist invective. For example: user comments below an article about Ann Coulter will very often feature a post calling her a 'cunt', often with adjectives like "shrivelled" that focus on the physical nature of the insult. Articles about Bill O'Reilly (or a similarly-loathed male) will get a different curse applied to him in the comments. In the UK, the person to whom the word is most frequently used is probably a male radio-DJ called Chris Moyles. If anything, it's more common to use it to describe males.

Strangely, 'cunt' doesn't carry the same meaning as 'pussy,' whilst ostensibly denoting the same bodily organ. Where the latter tends to mean cowardly, (and is much more common in American English - it's rare to hear a brit say it) 'cunt' is a more general term for a bad person, a mean or unpleasant individual, and is much closer in connotation to the word 'arsehole/asshole.'
posted by Cantdosleepy at 8:13 AM on July 13, 2009


I swear my fifth grade teacher would say "stuffs", and I'm positive that she was British. It's very possible, however, that it was an expression peculiar to her alone. It always struck me as odd when I was a kid.
posted by umbú at 12:09 PM on July 14, 2009


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