• algebra •
Pronunciation: æl-jê-brê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: 1. That branch of mathematics that represents numbers with letters and other symbols in formulae and equations. 2. (Medicine) Bone-setting.
Notes: Always suspect foreign-sounding English words beginning with al as coming from Arabic (see Word History). The adjective for this word is algebraic(al) with a suffix -al that is optional except in the adverb, algebraically. A person who specializes in algebra is known as an algebraist.
In Play: Today's Good Word is hard to play with, but I'll try: "Police said the girl became disruptive in her algebra class when asked repeatedly not to text during class." Here is an even bigger groaner: "Phil said he flunked algebra because he couldn't find the X and didn't know Y." Apparently, she had left town without telling anyone.
Word History: Today's word comes from Medieval Latin algebra, from Arabic al jabr "the reunification (of broken bones originally), reintegration, putting together". It was used in the 9th century by Baghdad mathematician Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi as the title of his famous treatise on equations, Kitab al-jabr w'al-muqabala "Book of Reintegration and Reduction". This book also introduced Arabic numerals to the Europeans, which up until then were using Latin numerals. The name of the creator of algebra can be translated as "Abu Ja'far Muhammad, son of Musa ("Moses") of (the city of) Khiva". Al-Khwarismi "of Khiva" was Abu's nickname and is the ultimate source of English algorithm, another tribute to this great Arabic thinker. (Today we offer a nod of gratitude to Norman Neuberger III, located somewhere in Ohio, for recommending that we remind ourselves of the contributions from Arabic to mathematics.)