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November 23, 2018  |  Friday words #148  |  349 hit(s)

It’s been decades since I worked a retail job, or for that matter, worked at a place that kept regular opening and closing hours. That explains why I did not previously know a word that I learned recently from Friend Luke: to clopen. This refers to the responsibilities of a perhaps unfortunate store manager who must close an establishment one evening and open it the next morning. According to one page I found, clopen is restaurant lingo, but so far I have only their word for it.

For any establishment that’s open long hours, being the person who must clopen can be inconvenient or even arduous. A few years ago, Starbucks stopped scheduling employees to work clopening hours (or as the NYT put it, “banned the dreaded clopen shift”). In their case, it seemed particularly brutal, since clopening at Starbucks might mean closing at 10:00 PM and opening at 4:00 AM, gah. (Said a not-morning person.)

And let’s take a moment to think about the retail employees in the United States who are working today—Black Friday, as it’s called, the busiest shopping day of the year—and especially any of those who had to close late yesterday and open early today. May they earn lots of overtime pay, at least.

And what a great transition to talking about word origins. Black Friday, where did that expression come from? Lexicographer and all-around word person Ben Zimmer wrote up a history some years ago. Quick summary: first attested in 1951 regarding employee absenteeism; then used by cops in Philadelphia in the 1960s to describe the crush of traffic for the shopping day. Further senses developed (or were back-formed) after that, including the accounting-related one of retailers being “in the black” (i.e., profitable) on this high-volume shopping day.

But that’s not actually the surprising-to-me word origin for this week. Not long ago someone (probably on Twitter, and I didn’t record who or when, sorry) talked about the origins of the word aftermath. It doesn’t take a lot of language intuition, I think, to suspect that the -math in aftermath probably doesn’t have anything to do with mathematics. (Then again, “Maybe something to do with counting? I don’t know”—close relative)

Well, it doesn’t. The -math part is an old noun form of the verb to mow. (“The action or work of mowing; that which may be or has been mowed; the portion of the crop that has been mowed.”) And when I say old, I mean old: it’s an old Saxon term that has cognates all over the other West Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Frisian). To my surprise, the OED has a cite with this meaning from as late as 1917 (“You feel as you lie in the math The watching unseen of his eyes”), although I imagine this might have been used in a deliberately archaic sense, dunno. Anyway, once you know this history of the word math, the meaning of aftermath makes lots more sense.

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