History of Mathematical Symbols: The “-” Sign


Leonardo Fibonacci, he of the famed number sequence, was also one of the first mathematicians to use the minus sign for subtraction. He used “-” in his mathematical works as early as 1202 AD.

The letter p with a line over it, short for plus was used to symbolise addition. Similarly the earliest European symbol for minus was m with a line over it.  The line or dash was added to denote the word had been shortened. Over time, mathematicians stopped writing the abbreviated word and instead just used the + or – symbols. This is one of many possible theories of the symbols’ origins.

Meanwhile the Indians were using their own unique symbol for indicating subtraction.  Remarkably the “+” symbol was used for this. The symbol is mostly seen in the Bhakshali scripts of around AD 700. Research has shown that “+” morphed from the original Brahmi script ka, which is written like this:


The “ka” in turn is short for “kaniyas” which means “diminished” or “reduced”.

Other symbols used extensively for subtraction were a small circle enclosing the subtrahend or a dot.

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Sources: History of Plus and Minus Signs, Brij Mohan, Centra Hindu College, Banaras.

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