Math vs. Maths

Count me out.

Dear Word Detective:  I am a sometimes math teacher. Occasionally, even a mathematics teacher. As such, I follow the latest and greatest on my subject and am troubled by the increasing use of the word “maths.” I know you usually look backward to enlighten us on words, but here we see a trend unfolding forward. (And to my ears, it’s a disturbing trend.) Could you explain why “math” now needs to be plural? None of my (younger) maths (?) colleagues are as interested in words as I am and so they shrug off the question. — Bill.

Kids these days, eh? I was never very good at math until a moment in, I believe, tenth grade, when a very gifted math teacher was explaining a trigonometry problem to me. Suddenly, I got it; everything became marvelously clear and I realized with a thrill that I had finally grasped the underlying beauty and grandeur of mathematics. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I promptly forgot everything I had just learned and went on to relentlessly flunk math until they let me give up. To this day I am not allowed to play with my own checkbook.

So I admire folks who genuinely “get it” and have mastered the numerical arts of algebra, trigonometry, geometry, necromancy and so on that constitute the field of knowledge known today as “mathematics.” The word “mathematics” itself, the source of all this “maths” business, comes from the Greek “manthanein,” meaning “to learn,” which is also related to our modern English words “memory” and “mind.” When “mathematics” entered the English language from French in the 14th century (in the form “mathematic”), it actually included any field that involved numerical calculation (astronomy, physics, etc.), and the broad scope of its Greek roots lives on in the English word “polymath,” meaning a person of expertise in many fields.

“Math” as a colloquial short form of “mathematics” first appeared in print quite a while ago, in 1847, although that “math” sported a period (“It rained so that we had a math. lesson indoors.”) and was thus clearly a simple informal abbreviation. “Math” unadorned appeared by the 1870s. “Maths” is a bit newer, first appearing in print in 1911.

There is no difference, however, between “math” and “maths” apart from that “s” on the end of “maths.” Occasionally you’ll hear arguments that “maths” is more proper because it’s short for “mathematics” and thus should be plural. But although the field we call “mathematics” includes multiple disciplines (such as geometry, calculus, etc.), “mathematics” is a collective noun (as is “physics,” etc.), so it’s considered singular. You can tell that from how “mathematics” is treated grammatically: we say “My favorite subject is mathematics,” not “… are mathematics.” The form “mathematics” actually represents what was a common practice, about the time of the first appearance of “mathematic,” of using the plural form of a name of a field of study as a singular noun, as in the case of “acoustics,” “physics,” “linguistics” and many others. Terms that came into English earlier, such as “arithmetic,” didn’t get that “s.”

The only truly relevant difference between “math” and “maths” is usage. “Maths” is commonly used in Great Britain, while “math” is standard in the US. I’m afraid that your cohorts’ sudden affection for “maths,” unless they studied in Britain, may be another case of Anglophiliac posturing by Americans. It’s the same sort of affectation that leads PBS addicts to speak of “the telly” and that gave us the now-omnipresent Brit invention “gone missing” on the news. But while “gone missing” arguably fills a real gap in the American vocabulary (it certainly beats the hyper-dramatic “disappeared”), “maths” on this side of the Atlantic strikes me as silly and vaguely pathetic. But you’re right; it does seem to be spreading. One participant in an online discussion of the “math vs. maths” question I came across reported having recently heard Garrison Keillor say “Do the maths” on his radio show. If Keillor actually did say it, I’m really, really hoping that he was joking.

Page 1 of 2 | Next page