Philosophy of Computer Science

Etymology of 'Compute'

Last Update: 26 February 2010

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You might find the following information interesting. Whether it's philosophically relevant is another matter!

  1. The word ‘compute’ comes from the Latin word computare, meaning "arithmetic, accounting, reckoning".
    Clearly, its meaning has been extended to include non-numerical "reckoning".

    The Latin word computare itself comes from:

    So, in ancient Rome at least, to "compute" seems to have meant, more or less, something like:

  2. The word ‘reckon’ originally meant "to count, to calculate, to figure".
    ‘reckon’ is from an Indo-European root rek = to reach? to tell, to narrate, to say (as in "to recite").

  3. The origins of ‘count’, ‘calculate’, and ‘figure’ are also interesting:

    1. ‘count’ also came from computare and originally meant "to enumerate", "to recite a list"
      (and ‘recite’ is probably related to ‘reckon’; see above).

      • Note that when you "count", you "recite" a list of number words.

    2. ‘calculate’ came from Latin calculus, meaning (not the contents of MTH 141, but) "pebble"(!),
      since counting was done with pebbles originally!

    3. The verb ‘to figure’ means "to use figures to reckon",
      where the noun ‘figure’ seems originally to have meant "numerical symbol".

      The earliest citation for ‘figure’ in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from 1225, where it means "numerical symbol".

      • A citation from 1250 has the meaning "embodied (human) form".
      • A citation from 1300 has the more general meaning of "shape".

      This conversion of the noun ‘figure’ to a verb is an example of what the computer scientist Alan Perlis meant when he said,
      "In English, every word can be verbed" :-)

        Although it is completely irrelevant to this note,
        besides the webpage of pithy quotes by Alan Perlis cited above (also here),
        you should also be sure to read a similar set of quotes from Edsger Dijkstra.

Bottom line:
‘Computation’ seems to have originally meant something very closely related to our modern notion of "symbol [i.e., shape] manipulation",
which is another way of describing syntax.

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