History of Mathematical Symbols: The “+” Sign

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One of the very first things we learn about the world of numbers is mathematical symbols. We use symbols for addition, subtraction, division and many more operations to sculpt and shape numbers and make them do our bidding.

Have you ever wondered about the etymology of these symbols? The sign for addition for example, is a plus commonly written like this “+”.  Scholars agree it is a shortened form of the Latin word “et” meaning “and”.  After all, addition is combining this AND this AND that AND that. The Latin word “et” was probably shortened to just a “t” and it was written as a “+”

et

This symbol gained popular usage only from the middle of the fourteenth century. Interestingly, although the concept of addition was well known in the ancient world, there wasn’t any unifying symbol to mark this mathematical operation. The Egyptians used a pair of legs walking forwards to add and legs walking back to “take away” or subtract.

The Greeks and Hindus mostly used the position of the numbers to understand addition, but there have been instances of Greek works using the slash “/” and the Indians using “yu” in 3rd and 4th century manuscripts to highlight this very basic yet important function in maths.

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