7 Math Words You Haven’t Used Since High School

Tuesday, September 63 min read

For many of us, the math we do on an everyday basis involves simple calculations, such as figuring out a tip, or perhaps measuring the area of a room for new flooring. If you haven’t picked up a protractor in years, words such as “integer” and “polygon” have likely lost their meaning. But it’s always useful to refresh your academic roots — here are seven words that will help you remember those high school math lessons.


This one might ring a bell from the days of algebra class. A binomial is a mathematical expression with two terms connected by a plus or minus sign. It looks something like this: 3x2 + 2y2. The word originates from the terms “bi,” meaning “two,” and “nomos,” meaning “part.” In contrast, a monomial has only one part, while a trinomial has three parts.


In math, exponents are also called “powers.” An exponent describes how many times to multiply a number by itself. For example, in the case of 54, the exponent is the numeral 4 — meaning five is multiplied by itself four times. Using a term such as “exponent” is a shorthand in math. Saying “five to the fourth power” or “five with an exponent of four” is a lot quicker than listing out “5 x 5 x 5 x 5 = 625.”


This is a geometry term that indicates a complex, never-ending pattern. Everyday, recognizable items such as snowflakes, lightning bolts, plants, leaves, crystals, and tree branches can be fractals. This relatively new mathematical term was coined in the 1970s by Polish mathematician Benoit B. Mandelbrot from the Latin root fractus, which means “broken.”


In the 1879 Gilbert & Sullivan opera The Pirates of Penzance, the modern major-general celebrates knowing “many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse” by bursting into song. But what is a hypotenuse? Quite simply, it’s the longest side of a right triangle, which is found directly opposite a right, or 90-degree, angle. The word comes from the Greek terms hupo, which means “under,” and teinein, which means “stretch.”


An integer is just a whole number; it’s not a fraction or decimal. In other words, 1 is an integer. So are 205, 6,784, and -32. But 6.75 and 8½ are not integers. The word comes from the Latin terms in, meaning “whole,” and tangere, meaning “to touch.” It has similar roots to “integral” and “integrity.”


One of the first things children learn about in school is the concept of shapes, and that’s what a polygon is — a figure with at least three straight sides and angles. Simple polygons include triangles, squares, pentagons, and even stars. However, shapes such as circles, hearts, and moons are not polygons because they have curves. The word “polygon” comes from the Greek term polugōnos, meaning “many-angled.”


A quadratic equation involves unknown variables with an exponent no higher than the second power. It looks something like this: ax2 + bx + c = 0. This equation can strike fear into the hearts of beginning algebra students, but learning how to solve this unlocks a world of mathematical power. The basic formula is used across almost every field of engineering, science, and business. The name comes from the Latin word quadraticus, meaning “made square.”


While students (and adults) can get lost in a sea of numbers and symbols, math has always involved logic and reasoning, and theorems are the base of that. A theorem is a general proposition that can be proved by a chain of reasoning. Mathematicians use proofs that are previously accepted truths to logically establish that a theorem is correct.

Probably the most famous theorem is the Pythagorean theorem (a2 + b2 = c2), which is at least as old as 500 BCE. In this theorem, “a” and “b” are the lengths of the two legs of a right-angle triangle, and “c” is the length of the hypotenuse. When any two of the values of the theorem are known, the other can be calculated, and many other values can be determined, based on the Pythagorean theorem.

Featured image credit: Geber86/ iStock

Daily Question