English English language Etymology Usage Word origin

Calculus class

Q: I was listening to a radio interview and heard the host ask a guest for “your calculus” on something or other. She was using the word in place of “calculation.” It sounded so pretentious and wrong. Did she use the word incorrectly or am I wrong?

A: In British as well as American usage (in fact, wherever English appears) “calculus” is widely being used to mean simply “reasoning” or “thinking” or “decision-making” or “method”—or, as you’ve noticed, “calculation” in a loose sense.

You can find scores of recent examples in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Here are just a few of them:

“the moral calculus” (New York Times) … “the political calculus” (Wall Street Journal) … “The calculus is simple” (Japan Times) … “playing into this calculus” (the Nation) … “The calculus has changed” (Pravda) … “that calculus may be shifting” (Washington Post). None of these examples referred to mathematical computations.

We’ve had our eye on “calculus” for a few years now, and our opinion is that it originated as gobbledygook. It got its start as a pseudo-scientific usage, one intended to dress up simple language with a gloss of technical erudition.

Like you, we have a low opinion of this use of “calculus.” We place it in the same category as the nonscientific use of “parameter,” which we’ve written about before on our blog.

But we may have to adjust our thinking (our “calculus”?) on this looser sense of the word. It isn’t recognized by most standard dictionaries, but it’s become so ubiquitous—and it’s found in such respectable circles—that acceptance seems almost inevitable.

The Big Kahuna of linguistics, Noam Chomsky himself, uses “calculus” this way.

In an essay posted on Bill Moyers’s website, Moyers & Company, Chomsky commented on “the moral calculus of contemporary Anglo-American state capitalism.”

“Calculus” came into English in the 17th century from Latin, in which it meant “small stone,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Latin calculus was a diminutive form of calx (stone, pebble, limestone), a word whose echoes can be seen in English words like “calcium” and “chalk” as well as “calculus,” “calculate,” and “calculation.”

While the Romans used “calculus” to mean any small stone, they also used it in a more specific sense. It meant “a stone or counter” used in playing games, in reckoning on an abacus or counting board, or in casting a vote, the OED says.

Thus in Latin, Oxford adds, “calculus” also came to mean a reckoning, an account, or a vote.

The earliest verifiable appearances of “calculus” in English are from the late 17th century, when it was used in its mathematical sense. It meant “a system or method of calculation” or “a branch of mathematics involving or leading to calculations,” the OED says.

In standard dictionaries, the mathematical definitions of “calculus” vary.

For example, Cambridge Dictionaries Online has “the mathematical study of continually changing values.” But The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) has three definitions, including “a method of analysis or calculation using a special symbolic notation.”

The first use given in the OED is from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1672): “I cannot yet reduce my Observations to a calculus.”

In a more detailed example, Charles Hutton’s A Mathematical and Philosophical Dictionary (1796) refers to “the Arithmetical or Numeral Calculus, the Algebraical Calculus, the Differential Calculus, the Exponential Calculus, the Fluxional Calculus, the Integral Calculus, the Literal or Symbolical Calculus, etc.”

In medical English, “calculus” has a more literal meaning—at least one that’s closer to its early Latin roots. In this sense, it means a stony deposit created in the body, as in “renal calculus” (kidney stone), “vesical calculus” (bladder stone), “biliary calculus” (gallstone), and “dental calculus” (for tartar, a hardened deposit on the teeth).

The medical sense of the word made its appearance in the 18th century, the OED says (an earlier citation, from 1619, is debatable).

The earliest example cited in the OED is from John Arbuthnot’s Practical Rules of Diet in the Various Constitutions and Diseases of Human Bodies (1732): “A Human Calculus, or Stone.”

As we mentioned above, nontechnical definitions of “calculus”—senses that are neither mathematical nor medical—are scarce in standard reference books.

While “calculus” was briefly used to mean merely any computation or calculation, that sense of the word disappeared in the early 1800s, the OED says. But even then, there was a sense of numbers being juggled.

The OED’s earliest example is from Thomas Burnet’s The Theory of the Earth (1684): “Suppose the abyss was but half as deep as the deep ocean, to make this calculus answer, all the dry land ought to be cover’d with mountains.”

The only standard dictionary we’ve found that includes a mushier, entirely nontechnical definition is Random House Webster’s College Dictionary, which says the word can mean “calculation” in a general sense, as in “the calculus of political appeal.”

But the usage is so common these days that it may eventually find a place in other standard dictionaries. Participatory web-based dictionaries, whose readers contribute and edit the entries, are already recognizing this use of “calculus.”

Wiktionary, for example, has this among its definitions: “a decision-making method, especially one appropriate for a specialised realm.”

The example given in Wiktionary is from a 2008 issue of the Financial Times: “The Tory leader refused to state how many financiers he thought should end up in jail, saying: ‘There is not some simple calculus.’ ”

While this use of “calculus” has certainly increased in recent years, it isn’t as new as you might think. For decades, it’s been known in academic writing in the humanities and social sciences.

In Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science (2014), the authors Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont discuss scientific terms (“algorithm,” “topology,” etc.) that are often used by academics to give weak ideas a “veneer of rigor.”

The authors give examples of loose uses of “calculus” going back to the 1950s. Since then, it has escaped the ivory tower and it’s on the loose.

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