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Interesting Etymologies 20: Mathematics Symbols

Updated: Nov 20, 2021

"Hello again Word Lovers!" on this outing we are going to step out of the history of words and take a look at the symbols of mathematics!

( The round brackets)

Apparently invented by Erasmus, replacing the more square shaped example used until then

= Equals

Invented by Robert Recorde in 1557. The Welsh physician and mathematician is also credited with introducing the pre existing + sign to English speakers in the same year. His life is one of meteoric rise and stunning decline. Being appointed royal physician and then controller of the Royal Mint before then being sued for defamation and dying in debtors prison.

@ - The at symbol is far older than anyone could imagine, being noted in texts as early as 1536.

π - The Pie symbol, from the Greek letter π was first devised by another Welshman, mathematician William Jones in 1706, although he wrote that his equations came from the "ready pen of the truly ingenious Mr. John Machin" leading to speculation that he may have put it to use before Jones. The idea was not immediately adopted by others, who continued to use fractions to represent the figure beyond 1760.

+ & - were put to use in the late 15th century by German mathematicians. Prior to their implementation, P or M or PP and MM were used.

X for multiplication was originally a simply dot or point. The x can be traced to English mathematician William Oughtred in 1618 although there are examples of earlier use but they are hotly debated in symbol etymology chasing circles.

for infinity was first used by John Wallis, English mathematician, in the mid 1650s.

Leonhard Euler, the Swiss mathematician was rather prolific in the line of symbol invention but there is some dispute about his complete list.

We investigated the numbers 1 to 10 in episode 10 "Pie Again" but the number zero was not covered. It is, without surprise, a complicated story. It seems the earliest use of the symbol can be traced to 220AD. The word zero, first used around 1598, comes to English from French, which in turn is believed to have emerged from Venice (We recently covered a series of words that came from Venice in episode 18) via Arabic. Zero - Zafiro - Safir or Sifr (Cipher) meaning empty. The Arabic word was itself a translation of a Sanskrit word.

Going from zero and emptiness to "nothing" is a little Charly bonus to listen out for at the end of this episode.

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

As well as being the host of our Interesting Etymologies series, Charly Taylor is a stand up comedian and author. His latest offering is available now:

SkipDeLirio's Worst Ever Gig : A novel by Charly Taylor

Caesar’s army has returned from the long campaign in Gaul and the enemy has been all but defeated. Some of Pompey’s army, however, remains in Africa. Together with straggling Roman rebels and the local king Juba, they are gathering forces to prepare one last attack on what is now Caesar’s Rome. But there is one problem – a descendant of Scipio Africanus is fighting on the side of the Africans. And without a Scipio of their own, the superstitious Romans refuse to go to Africa to fight.

So Caesar sends out soldiers to find himself a Scipio. Luckily, there is a man of such name right there in Rome – a local drunkard and tavern entertainer distantly descended from the legendary warrior. Kidnapped solely on account of his ‘heritage’, the lowly clown is forced to lead out the troops in the battle of Thapsus. There, ‘history’ tells us, Scipio ‘disappears from the historical record’.

Until now.

This is the story of how ‘Nobody’ Skip DeLirio, with the cards finally all dealt in his favour, still managed to fuck it up. History will only take you so far. The rest is make-believe.

Order your copy here


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