What is the “math” in “aftermath”?

We’ve seen some startling statistics in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Umpqua Community College: There is a gun for nearly every person in the US, where we average about a mass shooting every day,  which we have taken essentially zero action on. Etymologically speaking, though, aftermath has nothing to do with numbers. Let’s do the math in the word aftermath.

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“Math.” Sharpie and colored pencil on paper. Doodle by me.

Aftermath

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) first records aftermath at the end of the 15th century. Back then, it referred to “a second crop or new growth of grass after the first has been mown or harvested.” For, this math meant “a mowing” or “the portion of the crop that has been mowed.” It is found very early in Old English, taking the form of mæþ. As you may recall, the symbol þ, called “thorn,” represented the unvoiced th sound (as in thick) in Old English.

By the 1650s, the OED continues, aftermath was signifying “a period or state of affairs following a significant event, especially when that event is destructive or harmful.” By the 1670s, the word was more generally referring to the “unwelcome consequence or effect” of such an event.

This math is related to meadmeadow, and mow.  Indo-European scholars have rooted this family of words in a Proto-Indo-European root, *mē-, “to cut down grass or grain with sickle or scythe.” In the US these days, though, the Grim Reaper has swapped out his scythe for a gun.

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From “numb” to “nimble”

In his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. last week, President Obama commented on the epidemic of mass shootings in the US: “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.” Numb – the word is very cautionary and, if we look to its etymology, perhaps instructive.

Numb

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites numb in English’s written record around 1400. Then, the word signified “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, especially through extreme cold.” The OED cites figurative usages for numb – “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.” – by the late 1560s, though this was rare until the 19th century.

Numb is a past participle of a much older and once everyday verb in Old English, nim, and is first recorded in the form of nommeNim – or niman, if we consider its infinitive form in Old English – functioned like take, a Scandinavian-based verb that eventually supplanted nim by the 15th century (OED).  As philologist Walter Skeat explains it, numb originally conveyed “taken” or “seized,” which shifted to mean “overpowered,” and then extended to “deprived of sensation.”

But where did that come from? We don’t pronounce it. No one ever did. We did, however, pronounce the phoneme in a word related to numb: nimble. Here, this is called “excrescent,” describing a consonant added between two others. This happens usually to make pronunciation easier. (Try pronouncing nimble without the b. Does the articulation feel a bit more strained to you?) As a result of hypercorrection in English spelling, the b was added to other words ending in m. Crumb, dumb, thumb, and limb are other examples. Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, explains the phenomenon in greater depth on an excellent piece he wrote on English spelling.

Nimble

Now, nimble – attested in a variety of forms in Old English, including numel – joins nim and an instrumental suffix, -le. Nimble is a very old word in the language, first documented to mean “quick at grasping, understanding, or learning” and “quick to seize or take hold of one” (OED). With that suffix -le, the OED goes on, nimble means means “apt to nim.” By the 1400s, we have evidence of its more modern sense of “agile,” or “quick and light in movement.”

We should listen to numb’s etymological lesson and seek to be nimble – in mind and in action – instead.

Coming up, we’ll also take a look at the deeper roots of nim and some surprising words it  related to.

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Rosary

Rowan County clerk Kim Davis has again grabbed headlines. As we learned after his historic visit to the United States, the Pontiff privately met with her and gave her two rosaries. Their sub rosa meeting raised many questions, including one for me: Why do we call it a rosary?

"Roses" Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Roses.” Ball point pen on paper. Doodle by @andrescalo.

Rosary

When Catholics pray the rosary, they recite a structured series of prayers contemplating important events – or “mysteries” – in the life of Jesus and his mother, Mary. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests this usage in 1531, though Catholic tradition originates the practice in a vision of Mary by Saint Dominic in 1214.

For most, rosary probably evokes its particular prayer beads. These help devotees keep count of the prayer sequence, thereby freeing their minds to meditate on those mysteries. The OED attests this transferred rosary by 1548.

An earlier citation of rosary provides important clues to the development of the word. The OED cites rosarie as early as 1387: a “coin made in imitation of the silver penny of Edward I (1272-1307) by European mints.” On one side of this counterfeit currency was a bust wearing a chaplet or garland, often made of flowers – especially roses. (Another counterfeit penny circulated in Ireland at this time was called a mitre, named for its imprint of this episcopal headgear.) 

Prayer “garden”

Rosary derives from the Latin rosārium. In Classical Latin, the word names a “rose garden,” with its root, rosa, meaning “rose.” In Medieval Latin, rosārium also named a “garland” as well as a “series of prayers” or the very “string of beads” we associate the word with today. A kind of garland wreathing the head, a chaplet also refers to a particular section of the rosary along with other devotional prayers aided by beads.  

So, why roses? Well, the OED records rosary used as a title for a “book of devotion,” especially including rosary prayers, in 1525. Medieval scholars note some important metaphors for art in the Middle Ages and antiquity. Writing, for instance, was likened to ploughing a field. Collecting poems or prayers, furthermore, was like cultivating a garden or arranging a bouquet. We see this in the etymology of the word anthology, which literally means “a gathering of flowers” in ancient Greek. Latin rendered this as a florilegium, meaning the same. So, a rosary is like a “garden” of prayers, as the Online Etymology Dictionary sums it up.

Of course, symbolic associations of roses in Catholicism certainly add strength to the connection between roses and Mary, prayers to whom constitute 53 of a rosary’s beads. Philologist Eric Partridge notes that Medieval Latin used rosārium for a “rose garland for crowning the Virgin.” The resemblance between a garland and a rosary – a string of beads does look like a string of flowers – may further strengthen the connection.

Today, many of us might have a different sort of rose in mind: Roseburg, home to a community college that was visited with a horrific mass shooting yesterday. This may leave many praying their rosaries, but we’re going to need a lot more than prayers to do anything about gun violence.

Roses_Brooklyn Ball Point Pen on Paper_Scribblem ∫ r ∫