Origin of the word “Algorithm”

Last night, I was searching on some material and books on contributions to computer science by ancient Indian scientists and mathematicians, when I came across few links that were, well, in my view, pretty enlightening.

I specifically searched for related terms. One such term was Algorithm. I went to the default site where any one would start research on anything, Wikipedia. If you go to the Algorithm page, the etymology section reads: “The word “Algorithm” or “Algorism” in some other writing versions, comes from the name Al-Khwārizmī (c. 780-850), a Persian mathematician, astronomer, geographer and a scholar in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, whose name means “the native of Kharazm”, a city that was part of the Greater Iran during his era and now is in modern day Uzbekistan. He wrote a treatise in Arabic language in the 9th century, which was translated into Latin in the 12th century under the title Algoritmi de numero Indorum. This title means “Algoritmi on the numbers of the Indians”, where “Algoritmi” was the translator’s Latinization of Al-Khwarizmi’s name. Al-Khwarizmi was the most widely read mathematician in Europe in the late Middle Ages, primarily through his other book, the Algebra. In late medieval Latin, algorismus, the corruption of his name, simply meant the “decimal number system” that is still the meaning of modern English algorism. In 17th century French the word’s form, but not its meaning, changed to algorithme. English adopted the French very soon afterwards, but it wasn’t until the late 19th century that “Algorithm” took on the meaning that it has in modern English”.

From there I move on to Al-Khwarizmi’s wiki page. There, I found another similar definition of Algorithm. It says: “The term “algorithm” is derived from the algorism, the technique of performing arithmetic with Hindu-Arabic numerals developed by al-Khwarizmi”. Worth seeing are some other links, specially on Al-Khwarizmi. He is famously known for his work on Indian numerals and Algebra. And I also came across a book that’s worth checking out (which I am thinking of doing some time later).

It felt great seeing that something on which almost the entire world now functions, is based on works done on the Indian number system. 🙂

Ah, yes. While searching, I also stumbled upon Alan Turing’s wiki page. I did not know that he had some Indian connection as well 🙂 .

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  1. anne
    Posted January 30, 2016 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I found your blog while searching for the meaning of the prefix “algo-” assuming that somehow complemented “rhythm” to form algorithm. Since algo in Greek is pain, my first thought was that some mathematics student coined the phrase algorhythm to express how painful s/he found the constant rhythm of mathematics practice. 🙂

    But, I so much prefer this very positive meaning… that Al-Khwārizmī’s numerals are being quietly revered multiple times a day. I’m sure he’d be happy… though those disgruntled math students out there probably relate more to my original theory!

  2. Mark Russell
    Posted September 19, 2016 at 2:03 am | Permalink

    The etymology of algorithm goes back even further than what you have detailed. It ultimately derives from an Egyptian word which meant “black dirt”. This black dirt was used to make building bricks, and the term came to mean the recipe for these bricks.

    • Posted September 24, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

      Hi Mark,

      Thanks for the comment. What you have mentioned is new information for me. Glad that you shared. It would be great if you have some citation or reference that you can share.

      • Mark Russell
        Posted September 24, 2016 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

        I would love to give you a reference, but I would have to dig through my grad school notebooks, and they have been in the attic over 25 years.

        • Posted September 24, 2016 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

          No worries then. I’ll take it to be correct and will share any info I can find on the post. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  3. Fede Devi
    Posted October 20, 2016 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    I was interested in the etymology of this world; I am a computer scientist, so I have no real expertise beside knowing italian which helps with latin and greek and knowing what an algorithm is. It seems like there are a lot of contradicting information on the internet about this word.
    An italian dictionary states that the origin is the spanish word “algarismo” (number, digit) derived from arab words (which?). But then states that the arab word comes from the greek “ARITHMOS”, “ARITHMEO” with the arab suffix “AL” so basically the meaning would be something like “arab arithmetics” or simply “arab numbers”. It makes sense to me given the similarity to the world “arithmetic”.


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