The Word Nerd: Stolen meanings are inevitable even in ‘pure’ mathematics

Earlier this year I read a New York Times article entitled Stop Saying “Exponential”– Sincerely, a Math Nerd in which University of Maryland, Baltimore County mathematics professor, Manil Suri, railed against the increasing use of “exponential” to mean “a whole lot” and declared this is erroneous because the word should only be applied towards a trend and not to a single comparison. Hence, he believes a Washington Post report on “exponentially richer private-sector jobs” represents a misuse of the term.

In fact, many words that originated in scientific fields over time take on broader definitions. For example, the word “myopia” surfaced in 1693 to refer to an inability to see distant objects clearly but by 1821, poet Charlotte Smith used it metaphorically in the phrase “myopia of the mind.” Similarly, “galaxy” may have only enjoyed an astronomical sense at birth but within centuries the word was being used to refer to any brilliant assemblage, such as “galaxy of movie stars.”

Other words that have been usurped from scientific fields include atmosphere, eclipse, electricity, epicenter, horizon, orbit, organic and quantum.  In his article Dr Suri acknowledged that “English has a long history of borrowing specialized words for other purposes; for example, ‘catalyst’ from chemistry being applied to people. But an essential characteristic of mathematics, one it arguably lives and dies by, is precision.”

Oh really?

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Let’s look at some “precise” mathematical terms. “Corollary” is defined in the Oxford English
(OED) as “In Geometry, etc., a proposition appended to another that has been demonstrated, and following immediately from it without new proof; hence an immediate inference, deduction, consequence.” Its first use in this sense is found in Geoffrey Chaucer’s translation of medieval philosopher Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. But by 1674, we see this generalized OED definition: “Something that follows in natural course; a practical consequence, result.”

Another mathematical term that has seen added meanings is “tangent.” The OED shows this 1594 definition “Geometry. Of a line or surface in relation to another (curved) line or surface: Touching, i.e. meeting at a point and (ordinarily) not intersecting” But by 1823 the burgeoning field of crystallography used it to mean “Applied to a plane replacing an edge or solid angle of a crystal that is more properly a secant plane. Alas, even non-scientific senses developed such a “flying off at/on a tangent” to mean “erratic” and a general sense of something “touching” or “contiguous.”

Similarly, “parameter” originally only had a mathematical sense in the 17th century but in the interim years is has been adopted by the fields of electricity, statistics and music and in the 20th century it has acquired a generalized sense to refer to any distinguishing or defining characteristic. “Perimeter” has roots in geometry but has been adopted by ophthalmology, the military, and (horrors!) even basketball where it refers to the three-point line.

Dr. Suri ends his piece by saying “math is one of the few institutions we have left free of doublespeak or embellishment or biased opinion. Its words are supposed to mean exactly what they say.”

As I’ve demonstrated, it ain’t so. Q.E.D.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit

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