The Online Etymology Dictionary did my work for me today, fellow Word Nerds. I wanted to check out the history of the word algebra. More than just etymology, the OED provided the story of the history of algebra itself. Here’s what it had to say:

1550s, from Medieval Latin algebra, from Arabic al jebr “reunion of broken parts,” as in computation, used 9c. by Baghdad mathematician Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi as the title of his famous treatise on equations (“Kitab al-Jabr w’al-Muqabala” “Rules of Reintegration and Reduction”), which also introduced Arabic numerals to the West. The accent shifted 17c. from second syllable to first. The word was used in English 15c.-16c. to mean “bone-setting,” probably from Arab medical men in Spain.

(Here’s a link to a more extensive history of algebra, from the Brussels Journal website)

Algebra Equation

Anyone who’s ever taught algebra to a teenager can appreciate the use of the word for “bone-setting.” It’s as painful as a broken bone at times, no matter how much you love the budding mathematician. Kidding. Just kidding.

Anyone who’s ever solved an algebra problem can appreciate the meaning “reunion of broken parts.”

Which reminds me of a true story about a “broken” basketball team in need of reunion.

When my daughter was little, her homeschool math curriculum required her to answer problems like:

                                                  5 + x = 7

It was supposed to be a very early precursor to algebra. but she didn’t get it. Didn’t get it at all.

Then one day, she had a junior league basketball game, and I got lost finding the backwoods elementary school where it was being held. She was beside herself, but we got there just after the game started and all was fine.

That’s when it came to me. The next time we worked on math, I told her the equal sign is a referee. The two teams are on the opposite side of the equal sign. They are supposed to have the same number of teammates, but look…the team on the left side has some team members who are late!

She got it.

She finally got it.