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So in US English we shorten mathematics to math, and in the UK they say maths. Where does the 'S' come from in the UK version? For some reason I had it in my head that this was just because it's plural so you add the 's'; referring to multiple types of mathematics. But a question on another SE site just made me think about it, and it's actually not. "Mathematics" is both plural and singular:

I am studying mathematics in school.

There are many different types of mathematics.

So the 's' isn't a marker of a plural, so my mental-reasoning for why Brits use the 's' in maths is wrong.

The question becomes then, why is it there? I can't think of another abbreviation that pulls a letter from the end of the word like that ("math*******" vs "math*******s"). And this isn't just an extension of something used for similar words, because I don't think other subjects are abbreviated this way. So what is the reasoning behind it/where did it come from? Is it just what people started saying? Did a prominent person start using it? Did other people think (not very hard about it!) like I used to and jump to the plural conclusion? Or does it stand for something else?

To elaborate on my point about "not just adding the S for similar words", I'll take an example from a comment: "economics". In the US we shorten this to "econ". But I don't think they say "econs" in the UK, do they? So why just "maths"?

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@medica This is not a duplicate. I know that both are correct in each form of English; I'm asking why and what the history behind the distinction is. –  WendiKidd May 17 at 2:37
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@Mari-LouA Econ is, in the US at least, a very common abbreviation for economics classes. "Econ305" could be a class name, and "econ" is a popular way to refer to the class among students. "I'm making a B- in econ!" etc. I agree with you that I'm not sure I've heard it used to refer to real life economics; ex "A career econ is much less popular these days." So people might not use it to describe the economics outside of a school environment, but I think the example still stands in the context of my question. –  WendiKidd May 17 at 3:18
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<ths> is definitely not easier to say aloud - consonant clusters are almost never "easier" (less marked, to use the linguistic term) than single consonants. So if phonology/phonotactics are a factor, you'd expect them to be in favor of math, not maths. And I also can't think of any analogous term that keeps the <s> in abbreviation. Great question! –  alcas May 17 at 3:22
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In the UK we just don't use econ as an abbreviation for economics. I don't think we abbreviate it at all (except for course titles maybe) As a Brit, though, I'd have to say that maths is much easier to pronounce than math, which finishes too quickly. And Erik - enunciating it correctly is the norm; –  Rory Alsop May 17 at 6:41
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As someone with a degree in math from a Canadian university, I can tell you I have never heard anyone say "maths," while it was always "stats" for statistics, never "stat." That's a word only doctors and Latin teachers use. –  James McLeod May 17 at 10:58

4 Answers 4

Abbreviations and contractions of words follow many conventions, take for example the word continued I have seen it abbreviated/shortened/contracted or clipped in three ways.

  • cont
  • cont.
  • cont'd

Mathematics can be similarly contracted

  • math
  • math.
  • (math's) maths

Perhaps, originally, the written form with the apostrophe, math's, was more common in Great Britain but over time the apostrophe became obsolete. In fact the apostrophe in math's has no effect on its pronunciation. Unfortunately, I don't have access to the Oxford English Dictionary to confirm my suspicion that the term math's was ever used. The Online Etymology Dictionary instead states that the American math first appeared in 1890 while the British maths is attested from 1911.
Wikipedia has this to say on contractions:

An abbreviation is a shortening by any method; a contraction is a reduction of size by the drawing together of the parts. A contraction of a word is made by omitting certain letters or syllables and bringing together the first and last letters or elements; an abbreviation may be made by omitting certain portions from the interior or by cutting off a part. A contraction is an abbreviation, but an abbreviation is not necessarily a contraction.

Further on, Wikipedia explains

In British English, according to Hart's Rules, the general rule is that abbreviations (in the narrow sense that includes only words with the ending, and not the middle, dropped) terminate with a full stop, whereas contractions (in the sense of words missing a middle part) do not.

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Curious to see whether I could find the apostrophe version, I turned to Google Books and found to my surprise that math's existed in the US, this example is dated 1836, and predates Word Detective's claim that the first instance of math appeared in 1847.

enter image description here


Larry Trask who was professor of Linguistics in Sussex University (UK) mentions the most common shortened forms where the apostrophe still survives.

A few words which were contractions long ago are still conventionally written with apostrophes, even though the longer forms have more or less dropped out of use. There are so few of these that you can easily learn them all. Here are the commonest ones, with their original longer forms:

  • o'clock, of the clock
  • Hallowe'en, Halloweven
  • fo'c's'le, forecastle
  • cat-o'-nine-tails, cat-of-nine-tails
  • ne'er-do-well, never-do-well
  • will-o'-the-wisp, will-of-the-wisp

EDIT

Published in Richmond USA by William F. Richie, 1853-54, The Merit Roll of the Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute, July 1853 lists math's as the shortened form for mathematics twice!

enter image description here


Personal Reflections

As demonstrated in the excerpts I provided, it seems clear that the spelling convention for contracted words i.e., the use of the apostrophe for showing the omission of letters, was also used in the US. The shortened form math's was necessary in order to save space but for some reason the superfluous apostrophe and the letter -S were kept despite logic demanding that the word math was shorter. The question also arises whether this contracted word was ever actually spoken by Americans? My guess? Probably not, they chose not to say maths /maθs/ because it sounded plural and therefore opted for the clipped form, math /maθ/ in speech. The British, being renowned traditionalists, decided to keep the "silent" apostrophe in speech and thus favoured the longer form maths.

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Your hypothesis that math started life as math's and then dropped the apostrophe is appealing. However, the representativeness of your 1836 citation is open to question on the grounds that considerations of space and typography may have forced the typesetter to adopt the solution we can see above. When I viewed the full list of names in the Google Books text, I noticed that Edward Ward's name and credentials occurred in the only entry that was squeezed right up against the column divider. A few more instances of the same phenomenon would be helpful for strengthening the case you are making –  Erik Kowal May 17 at 6:01
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@medica I will hunt out the other examples of math's which I did see but discarded. Yes, you're absolutely right, the apostrophe denotes possession, but nevertheless it is a shortening dated 1889. Interesting video, so the math 1847 reference belongs to OED. But she's wrong about how we shorten/abbreviate words, the last letter can and is often added see Dr with or without the period, Rev'd or Revd and Gov't. –  Mari-Lou A May 17 at 6:40
    
Good find! How do you do that? –  medica May 18 at 6:46
    
The distinction between spoken and written expressions seems important here. I first learned about "maths" reading dialogue in British books and hearing it in British films and television. I cannot count the number of expressions commonly written as abbreviations but nearly always pronounced in full. A sampling: etc., Rev'd, Do. (see excerpt above: abbreviation of "Ditto"), Rt. Hon., Mr., Mrs., Dr., St., govt, dept., secy. In the face of that practice, knowing that "mathematics" has ever been abbreviated in writing as "math's" and "maths" doesn't explain to me why it is pronounced that way. –  Joan Pederson May 20 at 21:45
    
@JoanPederson are you saying you don't understand why Brits say /maθs/ the shortened form, and not the original form? Maths is quicker to say than mathematics, but by no means has the latter disappeared from the vernacular. –  Mari-Lou A May 21 at 5:17

Wikipedia presents two possible etymologies:

  • The Greek plural τα μαθηματικά gave rise to Latin (also plural) mathematica, which was duly translated into English as mathematics (in the sense of "more than one mathematic"), and into French as les mathematiques.
  • The last syllable was "Anglicized" during the borrowing, following the pattern of words like physics.

My own private hypothesis, grounded in little evidence, has been that it's a contraction of the adjectival form μαθηματικός.

I believe the British shortening to "maths" is nowadays regarded (at least by lay persons) as an irregular form, rather than tacit admission that there is in fact a "mathematic", a multitude of which is being referred to. Note how we say "maths is the queen of sciences", not "maths are the queens of sciences".

That last bit seems absurd, since in retrospect, the original Greek or Latin word was plural, but it isn't unheard of: We already speak about having "an" agenda, say data "shows" something, and complain about how state propaganda "is" suffocating.

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Just a slight note: maths isn't a science, so shouldn't really be called the "queen of sciences". =P (Not really relevant to your point though!) –  Smiley Sam May 17 at 20:47
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@SmileySam: "Queen of the sciences" dates to a period when they didn't make quite the same distinctions we do today among math, science, and philosophy. "Science" originally just meant "knowledge." "Natural philosophy" was what we would now call "physics." –  Ben Crowell May 17 at 23:12
    
My own private hypothesis, grounded in little evidence, has been that it's a contraction of the adjectival form μαθηματικός. This seems unlikely to me. Greek inflections vary according to case and number, and "-os" is a common singular ending for a noun. Any medieval English monk who knew enough Greek to make up a derived form would presumably know this. –  Ben Crowell May 17 at 23:18
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@SmileySam The phrase "queen of hearts", not being herself a heart, must be terribly confusing to you, given your logic. At any rate, this is hardly the place to argue over whether math is a science or not. –  Superbest May 17 at 23:20
    
@BenCrowell Admittedly, it also seems unlikely to me. Not because of your reason, but because of the French form. –  Superbest May 17 at 23:21

I think this YouTube “numberphile” video covering this story is appropriate here.

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the speaker, not the talker =P –  jon_darkstar May 18 at 15:11
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I actually like the video, it IS interesting. You could provide a short summary, YouTube videos have a tendency to be deleted over time, or relate what you found most pertinent. –  Mari-Lou A May 19 at 7:26
    
If this answer is not expanded on it will be turned into a comment. –  Matt Эллен Jul 16 at 12:27

Some technical fields of study just sound better with an s on the end.

  • Physics
  • Avionics
  • Electronics
  • Astronautics

British and American ears differ on whether Maths or Math sound better.

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Well we both agree to Mathematics. It's just the shortened version that perplexes me. –  WendiKidd Jul 4 at 3:22

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