Why We Use “X” as the Unknown in Math

Why do we use “x” in algebra? Why not “a”, “b” or even “z”?

Find out the answer here: http://gizmodo.com/why-we-use-x-as-the-unknown-in-math-1657254357

Excerpt:

For hundreds of years, x has been the go-to symbol for the unknown quantity in mathematical equations. So who started this practice?

Algebra was born in the Middle East, during the Golden Age of medieval Islamic civilization (750 to 1258 AD), and its early form can be seen in the work of Muhammad Al-Khwarizmi and his 9th century book, Kitab al-jabr wal-muqabala (al-jabr later morphing into algebra in English). During this heyday, Muslim rule and culture had expanded onto the Iberian Peninsula, where the Moors encouraged scholarship in the sciences and math.

So what does this have to do with the letter “x” in math? In a recent TED talk, the director of The Radius Foundation, Terry Moore, posited that the the use of “x” in this way began with the inability of Spanish scholars to translate certain Arabic sounds, including the letter sheen (or shin). According to Moore, the word for “unknown thing” in Arabic is al-shalan, and it appeared many times in early mathematical works. (For example, you might see “three unknown things equals 15,” with the “unknown thing” then being 5.)

But since Spanish scholars had no corresponding sound for “sh,” they went with the “ck” sound, which in classical Greek is written with the chi symbol, X. Moore theorizes, as many others before him have done, that when this was later translated into Latin, the chi (X) was replaced with the more common Latin x. This is similar to how Xmas, meaning Christmas, came about from the common practice of religious scholars using the Greek letter chi (X) as a shorthand for “Christ.”


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