The field of mathematics gives us our word this week, though today it tends to mean anything that involves three or more governments or organizations, such as the famous Yalta Conference of 1945, pictured.
It dates, in its original sense of “having more than four sides,” to the 17th Century. Our political usage of the word only appeared in the middle of the 19th, according the entry in The Oxford English Dictionary Online.
Compare this word to “bilateral,” such as the on-again, off-again talks between the leaders of the US and North Korea, or “unilateral,” such as when an organization makes a decision without any other parties’ involvement.
Our word appears in the realms of business and political science most often today, but its older geometric and social meanings linger. The OED offers a recently added definition, “offering two or more distinct curricula for secondary education,” with an earliest recorded use in 1938.
As negotiations and trade disputes continue to be in the news this summer, I expect to see “multilateral” and its kin frequently.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.