English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Iteration and its iterations

Q: My latest pet peeve is people saying “iteration” when they could easily say “version.” It’s quite a fad in Washington journalism.

A: We’ve written a post about the meaning of “iterate” and “reiterate” (they mean the same thing), but we haven’t discussed the use of “iteration” for a version of something.

Although this usage is relatively new, standard dictionaries are beginning to accept it. Some define an “iteration” broadly as any kind of version, while others define it as a version of computer hardware or software.

We’re not particularly bugged by the new use of “iteration” for “version,” though we’re not surprised that such a stuffy-sounding word would insinuate its way into the officialese spoken in Washington.

When “iteration” showed up in English in the 1400s, it referred to the act of repeating. The ultimate source is iterāre, classical Latin for “do a second time” or “repeat.”

For hundreds of years, as “iteration” appeared in writings on alchemy, religion, medicine, mathematics, computer science, and so on, it meant either the act of repeating or a repeated action.

The earliest example of “iteration” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from The Ordinall of Alchymy, a 1477 illuminated manuscript by the English poet and alchemist Thomas Norton: “The multitude of their Iteration.”

The OED says the term was often used for “readministering a sacrament,” as in this example from The Apology of Iohan Bale Agaynste a Ranke Papyst (circa 1550): “the iteracyon of baptysme.” (John Bale, a Carmelite friar, converted to Protestantism during the reign of Henry VIII.)

By the late 1600s, according to citations in the dictionary, “iteration” was being used to mean a specific repetition. The first example is from Pharmacopœia Bateana (1694), a six-volume work by the English physician and medical writer William Salmon:

“For the three or four Iterations, the Regulus becomes apparently more bright and pure.” (In medieval Latin, regulus referred to metallic antimony.)

In the early 20th century, “iteration” came to be used in mathematics as “the repetition of an operation upon its product, as in finding the cube of a cube,” according to the OED.

The dictionary says this sense is especially used for “the repeated application of a formula devised to provide a closer approximation to the solution of a given equation when an approximate solution is substituted in the formula, so that a series of successively closer approximations may be obtained.”

If that left your head your head spinning, here’s a simpler definition from Merriam-Webster Unabridged: “a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result.”

The first Oxford example for the mathematical sense is from The Calculus of Observations, a 1924 treatise by Edmund Taylor Whittaker and George Robinson:

“In 1674 a method depending on a new principle, the principle of iteration, was communicated in a letter from Gregory to Collins.” We went to the source to expand on the citation, but gave up after being bogged down in a Grimpen Mire of equations.

A computer sense developed in the mid-20th century.

In programing, according to M-W Unabridged, “iteration” refers to “the repetition of a sequence of computer instructions a specified number of times or until a condition is met” or to “one execution of a sequence of operations or instructions in an iteration.”

The earliest computer example in the OED  is from Numerical Methods for High Speed Computers, 1960, by Godfrey Newby Lance:

“Whichever criterion is used to determine the end of the iteration, it is clear that the orders to evaluate f(xr) and f(xr + 1) are identical except that xr + 1 is used instead of xr. This kind of modification is made extremely simple on high-speed computers.”

The citations in M-W Unabridged suggest that this technical computer usage may have led to the looser use of “iteration” for a version of something, first in reference to versions of software, and then more broadly.

A citation from the March 10, 1998, issue of PC Magazine, for example, uses “iteration” for a version of an operating system: “Current iterations of Windows 95 and Windows NT are far from perfect, but they’re easier to use and more stable.”

The word is used similarly in this citation from the winter 2000 technology issue of Fortune: “No one cares much about the latest iteration of a spreadsheet program or word processor.”

Finally, the term breaks free of computers in this M-W example:

“The scene, and hundreds of others from the first five seasons of ‘The Sopranos’ (as well as its current, sixth iteration), are in the process of being edited ever so slightly by the A&E Network” (from the May 9, 2006, issue of the New York Times).

We’ll end with a recent Washington sighting that we found online:

“Civil and Human Rights Coalition Denounces Latest Iteration of Trump’s Muslim Travel Ban” (from a Sept. 24, 2017, news release by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation.
And check out our books about the English language.