The word "mains" seems to be a widely understood synonym for home electricity supply.

Why is it called so? I always thought it was a corruption of main [electricity supply]. Is it an American dialect term? I mainly came across it in American jargon context, but Wiktionary says that it's a British term. What gives?

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    You're reading Wiktionary wrong. They don't give an etymology for the English word mains. The unrelated Norman word mains is a corruption of the Latin minus. – Peter Shor Jun 4 '17 at 11:28
  • Thanks for pointing that out! I'll not fix it - too late. – anatolyg Jun 4 '17 at 11:38
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    @anatolyg As a native AmE speaker who does work in London and has regular interaction with BrE speakers, I can tell you mains is incontestably a BrE term, and is not used in AmE. So now I'm curious about your "American jargon" context: what was it? Who was speaking? What did they say? – Dan Bron Jun 4 '17 at 11:59
  • Because Brits are weird. In the US it's "electrical service" or "main power panel" or some such. Though I assume that the NEC has a defined term, there's not a single term that would be universally recognized in the US. (And "mains" would likely be taken to mean "water main, gas main, and sewer main".) – Hot Licks Jun 4 '17 at 12:17
  • I think it came from main power lines as in main(line)s -- Food for thought? – English Student Jun 4 '17 at 13:38

As Peter Shor mentioned, your Wiktionary link only makes a claim about the Norman word mains coming from minus.

Merriam-Webster gives for mains:

: of or relating to utility distribution mains mains voltage mains water

And etymonline gives for main:

Old English mægen (n.) "power, bodily strength, force, efficacy," from Proto-Germanic *maginam "power," suffixed form of PIE root *magh- "to be able, have power." Original sense preserved in phrase with might and main. Meaning "principal channel in a utility system" is first recorded 1727 in main drain.

  • etymonline doesn't mention mains at all; do you really have to just assume it came from main? English doesn't usually append "s" to an adjective to make a new word, so this requires explanation. – anatolyg Jun 4 '17 at 11:47
  • Etymonline mentions a usage for main that almost literally follows MW's definition of mains. That could be coincidental, or maybe MW cannot be trusted. You yourself always assumed mains came form main. Now you misapplied an etymology about a word in a completely different language, and you cannot trust Merriam-Webster or your own old intuition anymore? – oerkelens Jun 4 '17 at 11:52
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    Actually, your own link give as a second definition "The pipes of a centralised water supply that transport the water to individual buildings." indicating a simple plural of main. So it seems the British mains with implied singular meaning may simply be originally the plural of main that was used in this sense since 1727. – oerkelens Jun 4 '17 at 11:55
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    The OED shows that mains (plural form) has been used to mean "principal channel for conveying water" since 1727. And there's a citation from 1628 where I can't tell whether it is singular or plural. So it was just transferred to electricity. But it beats me why it's plural. – Peter Shor Jun 4 '17 at 12:18
  • The 1727 citation: "Where any Stock-Blocks of Wood with Plugs, or any Fire-Cocks, were made and fix'd on any Mains." Clearly, Mains is singular in this. The citations alternate between using main and mains, and they're mostly British, so the singular and plural coexisted in U.K. usage for at least two centuries. – Peter Shor Jun 4 '17 at 12:36

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