Thursday, September 11, 2014


For some reason or another, I was thinking about looking into this word awhile ago. Way leads on to way,  however, and I somehow got off that particular quest. Today, though, I happened to notice Rob Kitchen's short review of Christopher Steiner's Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World over at The View From the Blue House and thought to myself, okay, just give it up. You (meaning me) don't really know what algorithms are. I mean, the word is familiar enough from high school math, but that was a long time ago, folks. I suppose it's possible that they were defined for us back in that hazy past, but I think it's more likely that we just had to do them. Use them. Whatever.

Today, though, I vow to go further.


An algorithm is not, as I suspected, an extremely complicated higher math formula, but just the name for an overall type of mathematical or computational procedure. It's a step by step guide for solving a particular problem. Even a recipe can be considered an algorithm if it outlines certain steps and procedures and the order in which you do them. Here is  a webpage example of how you would turn a standard recipe into a "pseudocode". (And yes, do go there, because it will teach you how to make an easy pizza brownie, even if you don't want to learn algorithms.)

So why the fancy word? Well, it all goes back to one Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer, living between 780 and 850 AD, whose work when later translated introduced both Hindu/Arabic numerals and the concepts of algebra into European mathematics. The treatise on numbers came into Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum, which just means "al-Khwarizmi on the numbers of the Indians", Algoritmi being the Latinization of his name.

a page of al-Khwarizmi's algebra

Algoritmi in Medieval Latin became algorismus (the normally nonjudgmental Online Etymology Dictionary calls this "a mangled transliteration"), and led to the Old French algorisme, which meant the Arabic numeral system. French turned this into algorithme, under the mistaken idea (again the OED) that it had something to do with the Greek word for number, arithmos. Middle English had algorism from Old French, but it too simply meant decimal number system. It wasn't until the 19th century that our current English word took on its current English meaning.

And though I didn't write this up today intentionally, as I certainly wouldn't have thought 'algorithm' derived from a Persian place name (al-Kharizmi just means "from Khwarezm", an oasis in Central Asia), it is perhaps a good day to remember that not everything that has come to us out of the Middle East has meant trouble for the West, and some of it has actually brought us great good.


  1. Yes, Arabic gave us algorithm and alcohol. Some of us may be more thankful for one than for the other.

  2. I wish they'd given us their calligraphy, Peter.

  3. Yep, I always like to look at the calligraphy in Islamic art sections of museums. I like the kufic script.

  4. You might recognize the script even if you don't know the name. It's the squarish, geometric one:

  5. Very nice. I am reminded again that a friend of mine studied Arabic in college. As usual, she was way ahead of me.

  6. A perfect post for the date and because I keep hearing this word and feeling clueless. Thanks.

  7. Glad to hear it, Nancy. The book mentioned above sounds like it wouldn't be over our heads, though Rob Kitchin points out that it largely sees algorithms as positive and doesn't really hold a critical perspective toward letting them run our lives.