Liz Wager asks: Anyone for an algorithm?

Liz WagerI have a fondness for flowcharts. I also attempt to teach doctors to prefer short words when they are writing. So, when I found myself exchanging emails with an American doctor who insisted on referring to the COPE flowcharts as algorithms, I was determined to teach him the error of his ways. But first, I needed some evidence. And now I am in a dilemma, because I also love obscure and confused word origins.

Apparently the term “algorithm” derives from a garbled form of the name of the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi who published an influential treatiseOn Calculation with Hindu Numbers” in the 9th century. The trouble was, this Arabic work was translated into Latin in the 12th century with the title Algoritmi de numero Indorum. Readers mistook the transliteration of the author’s name for a Latin plural and invented the term “algorismus” to mean calculation. They then somehow got even more confused by muddling it with the Greek “arithmos” and turned the “s” into “th”. So from al-Khwarizmi we got algoritmi, then algorismus then algorithm.

So now I have a dilemma. I simply love this story of misplaced scholarship, and will seek every opportunity to regale people with it. But that means I’ve got to go against my principal of short words and start referring to my lovely flowcharts as algorithms. Well, it’s only two syllables longer (perhaps just one if you say it quickly)…. and in the week when President Obama called on us to remember civilisation‘s debt to Islam, I reckon that’s a small price to pay.

Liz Wager is a freelance writer, trainer and publications consultant who works for a number of pharmaceutical companies, communication agencies, publishers and academic institutions. She is also the Chair of COPE (the Committee On Publication Ethics) and a member of the BMJ’s Ethics Committee.