Calculus Etymology

By Maeve Maddox

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I did not take calculus in high school. (I barely made it through basic math.) All I know about calculus is that it is a branch of mathematics that involves a certain type of calculation that entails the study of rates of change.

The word calculus has an interesting etymology. It’s a diminutive of the Latin word for pebble, calyx. A calculus is a “little pebble.”

Aside from mathematics, calculus has a medical application. A renal calculus is a kidney stone.

The association of pebbles with mathematical computation comes from the use of them with a Roman abacus. (Not the kind made with beads on wires. That kind originated in China.)

The Latin word abacus can refer to more than one thing:

square flat surface
sideboard
gaming board
table
flat slab on top of a column
painted ceiling panel.

An abacus for counting was a table top marked with parallel lines. Pebbles or other counters were placed along the lines, which had place value.

Because I associate the word calculus with mathematics and science, the use of the word in the general news media never fails to startle me into an Inigo Montoya moment. Is calculus really the most apt word in the context? Sometimes, it seems that calculations, planning, or strategy
might be a better choice.

[Besides taking] fewer trips, travelers are holding out for last-minute deals. This is forcing tour operators to revise their calculus and cancel more trips.

That does not mean that Swartz had a right to do what he did or not to be punished. But his motives should have been an important part of the government’s calculus.

The impact on economic growth in the capital is only beginning and seems likely to fundamentally alter the market’s investment calculus.

More ubiquitous than plain calculus is the term political calculus. The Ngram Viewer shows this phrase rising from the 1980s. A web search brings up 89,400,000 hits.

In the following uses, perhaps other choices might convey a clearer meaning:

The surprisingly simple political calculus behind ‘cancel culture’ (purpose?)

Spotting the political calculus behind some acts of corporate charity (strategy?)

Now a federal judge has upset the political calculus behind the restriction, as well. (intention?)

I’m not saying that calculus can’t be appropriate in a political context. William H. Riker and Peter C. Ordeshook’s “voting calculus” looks mathematical to me.

V=pB−C+D

V= the proxy for the probability that the voter will turn out
p= probability of vote “mattering”
B= “utility” benefit of voting–differential benefit of one candidate winning over the other
C= costs of voting (time/effort spent)
D= citizen duty, goodwill feeling, psychological and civic benefit of voting

Two things may be at work that cause commentators to choose “political calculus” over more transparent words like intentions, purpose, or strategy.

One, calculus sounds so much more esoteric.

Two, something subliminal may be at work. Calculus belongs to a family of words that includes calculating, in the sense of “shrewdly or selfishly reckoning the chances of gain or advantage.”

Synonyms for the adjective calculating:

cunning
crafty
wily
shrewd
sly
scheming
devious
designing
conniving
Machiavellian

Come to think of it, “political calculus” may be the perfect phrase when discussing issues with political ramifications.

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1 Response to “Calculus Etymology”

  • ApK

    I think substituting a “simpler” word in the cited news examples MAY be a good choice, if you are aiming for a low reading-grade-level audience, as news outlets are often supposed to do, but I think in many cases a different word it borders on “dumbing down” the language needlessly.
    “Calculus,” in the math sense, simply means a system of calculating, and it has seemed appropriate to me when it’s used to refer to a system of calculating business plans, political strategy, or anything else when you want to convey that the system of calculating those things is complex, in the same way that the the subject of infinitesimal calculus (the math we now call simply “calculus”) is complex, compared to the comparatively simple calculations of arithmetic.

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