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TWTS: No calculator required for the math in "aftermath"


In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, we found ourselves wondering about the history of “aftermath.”

A listener named Sybil Kolon put "aftermath" on our radar a couple of weeks ago. This past week, we noticed people from all over the political spectrum using it in discussions of a post-election world.

The first thing you need to know is that the “math” in this term has nothing to do with mathematics and everything to do with agriculture.

This “math” goes back to Old English and means “a mowing.” That is, the mowing of a meadow or field. The “aftermath” is the new growth that comes after said field or meadow is mowed.

This use shows up by the 1400s. Soon after, a figurative use shows up which refers to the period or state of affairs following a significant event. It’s often used in reference a harmful event and/or unwelcome consequences.

As we said, people from both sides of the aisle were using “aftermath” in election discussions this week, so consider it a non-partisan term.

Since “aftermath” has a nice, neat etymology, we decided to look into another word that doesn’t have such a clear origin story. To hear our discussion of “kibosh,” listen to the audio above.

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of Weekend Edition at Michigan Radio. She also co-hosts Michigan Radio’s weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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