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Mathematics and Its Symbols...Meaning? History?

As mentioned in my Math Lint for this week, being able to communicate using the language of mathematics depends on full understanding of its symbols. I recall that many of my college math texts included an appendix of mathematical symbols to help the reader....the trouble was how were they ordered...alphabetically?

Today, multiple resources are available for helping you and your students learn about and work with mathematical symbols. A starting place is to check out these web sites:

Pose questions to your students...such as why the exclamation mark is used as the factorial symbol? Or, what is the name for the horizontal line "" that denotes the repeating portion of a decimal? And, why are the long division symbol and the square root symbol similar in form?

If you want to delve into the rich history underlying the mathematical symbols, the text I have found most useful is Florian Cajori's A History of Mathematical Notations. Written in the late 1920's, the text is now available as an inexpensive Dover reprint at Amazon and elsewhere.

Cajori's A History of Mathematical Notations documents the first appearance of most mathematical symbols and their origin, competitors for a common concept, and each symbol's rise to popularity/adoption or demise, For example, look up the interesting symbols created to resolve the confusion of using the symbol "-" for both a binary operation (subtraction) and a unary operation (additive inverse). Keep the book in your bathroom for browsing!

If you can't find a copy of Cajori's book, two other historical resources are Doug Weaver's web site or Jeff Miller's web site on the history of math symbols.