Friday, 9 June 2017

糖 | táng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: táng 🔊) means “sugar”.

You might recall seeing the left part of this character before. That’s right, it’s (), “rice”. The original meaning of was “sweet rice cake”. The right part, , is here because it is pronounced the same as the whole affair: táng. Most of the original meanings of are obsolete by now, except that for the Tang dynasty.

More photos related to sugar @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

ψ | psi

The letter ψ (psi) was yet another Greek addition to the alphabet, placed after the letters of Phoenician origin, along with φ, χ and ω. According to Wikipedia,

The letter’s origin is uncertain. It may or may not derive from the Phoenician alphabet. It appears in the 7th century BC, expressing /ps/ in the Eastern alphabets, but // in the Western alphabets (the sound expressed by Χ in the Eastern alphabets).

The letter ψ has a number of uses in maths and sciences, such as:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

χ | chi

The letter χ (chi) was a Greek addition to the alphabet, placed after the letters of Phoenician origin, along with φ, ψ and ω. According to Wikipedia,

In Ancient Greek, ‘Χ’ and ‘Ψ’ were among several variants of the same letter, used originally for // and later, in western areas such as Arcadia, as a simplification of the digraph ‘ΧΣ’ for /ks/. In the end, more conservative eastern forms became the standard of Classical Greek, and thus ‘Χ’ (Chi) stands for // (later /x/). However, the Etruscans had taken over ‘Χ’ from western Greek, and it therefore stands for /ks/ in Etruscan and Latin.
The Greek χ gave rise to the Latin X, Gothic enguz 𐍇 and Cyrillic Х.

The lower-case χ has a number of uses in maths and sciences, such as:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

μ | mu

The Greek letter μ (mu) arose from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤌 (mēm) which, in turn, was derived from the Egyptian hieroglyph for water.

The lower-case μ has many uses in maths, engineering and sciences, for example:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 5 June 2017

盐 | yán

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: yán 🔊) means “salt”.

If you think it looks complicated, I’ve got news for you: is actually a simplified form of another character. Here:

And here’s a small seal script form of this hanzi:

Uncle Hanzi explains its origin as follows:

From salt (a bag of alkaline soil) / substituted with soil and phonetic / [simplified to bowl / and man looking in bowl substituted with ]. Meaning salt.
I hope now everything’s clear.

More photos related to salt @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

: | ː

The colon (:) is a punctuation mark used in many ways:

  • to introduce lists (like this one)
  • before a definition
  • before a description
  • to make explicit or expand on something, as exemplified on the following line:
  • in Finnish and Swedish: to indicate possession (playing the role similar to that of the apostrophe in English)
  • before an explanation or an example, as shown on the following line
  • to form contractions, as in Swedish: Thomas Gustafsson can be abbreviated as Thomas G:son
  • before direct speech or quotations. For example, Wikipedia says:
    In British English, it was once common for a colon to be followed by a hyphen or dash to indicate a restful pause, in a typographical construction known as the “dog’s bollocks”, though this usage is now discouraged.
  • to introduce spoken words in written dialogues
  • to separate a title and subtitle of a work when written the same line
  • in American English: in formal letter writing
  • to separate hours:minutes:seconds when written in numbers
  • to separate chapter:verse in Biblical citations
  • in mathematics and elsewhere to indicate a ratio or a scale
  • in a variety of other ways in mathematics
  • in certain O:B:Sc:U:Re ways in chemical nomenclature
  • in many ::wonderful ways:: in C:\omputing
A triangular colon (ː) is used in International Phonetic Alphabet to mark /mɑːk/ the preceding sound as “long”.

More photos of ink and water drops @ Shutterstock.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

. | 。

The full stop or period (.) is a punctuation mark typically found at the end of a sentence, unless it is a question or exclamation.

In the 3rd century BC, the Greeks developed a punctuation system where ὑποστιγμή (the low dot .) functioned as the modern comma, while στιγμὴ μέση (the interpunct or the middle dot ·) played the role similar to that of the modern semicolon; στιγμὴ τελεία (the high dot ˙) marked the end of a completed thought, like the modern full stop.

Classical Latin had no lower-case letters, interword spacing or punctuation; hovvever·the·interpvnct·vvas·sometimes·vsed·to·separate·vvords

Apart from the ends of sentences, full stops are found after initials, some abbreviations and acronyms. In English-speaking countries, they indicate a decimal point, although in Britain until 1970s they used the interpunct for this purpose.

In Chinese and Japanese, a small circle is used to indicate the end of sentence instead of a solid dot .

More photos of ink and water drops @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 2 June 2017

υ | upsilon

The Greek letter υ (upsilon) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤅 (wāw) which meant “hook”. This letter is the most prolific of all Greek alphabet: it gave rise to the Latin letters F, U, V, Y, W as well as Cyrillic Ѵ and У. In the same time, as its upper case Υ is too similar to the Latin Y and lower case too similar to the Latin u and v, it does not make a good mathematical or scientific symbol. In the International Phonetic Alphabet, the lower-case υ is used to represent a labiodental approximant, as in Finnish veli /ˈʋeli/ or Norwegian Stavanger /stɑˈʋɑŋər/.

The letter ʊ (Latin upsilon) was derived from the Greek lower-case υ. It is used in the IPA to represent a near-close near-back rounded vowel, as in English put /pʊt/ or German kurz /kʊrts/.

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

τ | tau

The Greek letter τ (tau) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤕 (tāw) which, in turn, was derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph meaning “mark”.

The lower-case τ has many uses in maths, engineering and sciences, such as:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

ω | omega

The letter ω (omega) is the 24th and last letter of the Greek alphabet. It was first introduced in the 7th century BC as a broken-up at the side variant of omicron. This letter was adopted into the early Cyrillic alphabet as Cyrillic omega (Ѡ, ѡ), with both upper- and lower-case letters similar to the Greek lower-case ω.

The lower-case ω has quite a few uses in maths, engineering and sciences, for example:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

ρ | rho

The Greek letter ρ (rho) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤓 (rēš), which is thought to have come from a pictogram of a head. As a numeral, ρ has a value of 100. Incidentally, this is our 100th post.

The lower-case ρ (or its variant ϱ) has many uses in maths and sciences, such as:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 29 May 2017

ξ | xi

The Greek letter ξ (xi) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤎 (sāmek), which, in its turn, could have evolved from the Egyptian hieroglyph djed, representing the spinal column. Other theories say 𐤎 meant “fish” (actually showing a fish skeleton?) or “a tent peg”.

The lower-case ξ has a number of uses in maths and sciences, including:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 28 May 2017

𝄢 | F-clef

The F-clef is named so because the line passing between the two dots corresponds to the note F. The symbol 𝄢 evolved from the Latin letter “F”, its two horizontal strokes reduced to dots.

To me, 𝄢 is a more elegant symbol than 𝄞 (G-clef). The dots aside, 𝄢 looks very much like a golden spiral, i.e. a spiral whose growth factor is the golden ratio 𝜑. This inspired me to make the F-clef from an old gold-plated guitar string:

When placed on the fourth line of the stave, 𝄢 is called the bass clef. The bass clef is the only F-clef in modern use.

More photos of guitar strings and gold @ Shutterstock.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

𝄞 | G-clef

In musical notation, a clef provides the reference point for the notes on the stave. For example, the G-clef is named so because the line passing through its curl corresponds to the note G. The fancy symbol 𝄞 evolved from the Latin letter “G”.

When placed on the second line of the stave, 𝄞 is called the treble clef. Its Russian name is скрипичный ключ because the music for violin (скрипка) is written in treble clef. This is the most commonly used clef today. No wonder this symbol grew to represent music in general — much to the chagrin of bass players.

More photos of guitar strings and silver @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 26 May 2017

♮ | natural

In musical notation, is a symbol for natural, an accidental used to cancel a flat or sharp from either a preceding note or the key signature. Like the sharp sign ♯, the natural sign is derived from a “square” b used to denote B♮ in Gregorian chant manuscripts.

In Russian musical slang, бекар (from French bécarre) stands for delay or cancellation of an event, a failure to fulfill promises etc.; the derived verbs бекарить and забекарить mean “to cancel”, “to skip”, or “be late”.

More photos of flowers @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

♭ | flat

In musical notation, is a symbol for flat (bemol) which is commonly found as an accidental or in key signatures. The symbol is derived derived from a stylised lower-case b, “b rotundum”.

In Russian musical slang, бемоль means “belly”.

More photos of bananas @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

♯ | sharp

In musical notation, is a symbol for sharp (dièse) which is commonly found as an accidental or in key signatures. According to Wikipedia,

The modern accidental signs derive from the two forms of the lower-case letter b used in Gregorian chant manuscripts to signify the two pitches of B, the only note that could be altered. The “round” b became the flat sign, while the “square” b diverged into the sharp and natural signs.

They say that ♯ must not be confused with the # sign variously known as “hash”, “number sign” or “pound sign”. The truth is, there is very little scope for confusion of ♯ with # since ♯ is only used in the musical context. In fact, in pre-Unicode era, # was exactly the symbol for sharp (and lower-case b for flat) that was used in ASCII text files, and nobody would interpret F# as anything but F♯. On the contrary, there is every chance of confusion if you use it either as a number or pound sign. Personally, I resent these two uses. I mean, you must be really lazy to use # instead of № or No. As for “pound”, hello? Write lb. or switch to the metric system like the rest of the world.

If you really need to know the difference, look at the pictures. The sharp has two vertical chili peppers crossed by two slanted parallel peppers that rise from left to right. In this fashion, the slanted peppers won’t interfere with the staff lines. The hash has two horizontal peppers crossed by two slightly slanted parallel peppers.

More photos of chili peppers @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

σ | sigma

The Greek letter σ (sigma) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤔 (šīn) which meant “tooth”.

ς is the lower-case letter sigma (σίγμα τελικό) when used as the final letter in a word.

The lower-case σ has been widely adopted in maths and sciences, for instance:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 22 May 2017

λ | lambda

The Greek letter λ (lambda) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤋 (lāmed) which meant “goad” (a cattle prod).

The lower-case letter λ has many uses in maths, engineering and sciences, including:

λ is also one of the international symbols for LGBT rights.

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

κ | kappa

The Greek letter κ (kappa) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤊 (kāp) which meant “palm” (of a hand).

The lower-case κ is pretty much just a smaller version of the upper-case Κ and is virtually indistinguishable from the upper-case Roman K as well as the Cyrillic К/к. I prefer using the cursive ϰ.

The lower-case κ and/or cursive ϰ have quite a few uses in maths, engineering and sciences, for instance:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Saturday, 20 May 2017

ι | iota

The Greek letter ι (iota) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤉 (yōd) which meant “arm”. The archaic Cyrillic iota looks exactly the same.

The lower-case ι looks too similar to the Latin letters i and l to be widely used as a symbol on its own. Still, it has been adopted in maths and sciences, for instance:

  • in biochemistry: ι-toxin, a pore forming toxin from Clostridium perfringens
  • in mathematical logic: a definite description operator
  • in natural product chemistry: ι-carrageenan, a polysaccharide extracted from red algae that gels in the presence of calcium ions
More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 19 May 2017

〇 | líng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: líng 🔊) is a word for number zero.

In AD 690, Wu Zetian (624—705), the only Empress Regnant in the history of China, adopted a number of new characters, one of which was . Originally, it was meant to replace the unwieldy character “star”. After the Empress’s death, the new characters fell into disuse. In 1247, Qin Jiushao (ca. 1202—1261) found a new job for . It was introduced as the symbol for zero in his work 數書九章 (Shùshū Jiǔzhāng, “Mathematical Treatise in Nine Sections”). Another hanzi with the same meaning, , is mainly used for financial purposes.

More photos related to numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

0 | zero

Probably the first documented use of a number zero in the Old World was by Claudius Ptolemy in the Almagest (ca. 130 AD), although in the Americas the concept and symbol for zero existed much earlier.

Ptolemy employed the symbol ο̄ (“Hellenistic zero” ) within a Babylonian sexagesimal numeral system. The oldest known mention of zero and the decimal positional system are found in the Jainist cosmological text Lokavibhāga (AD 458). By the 11th century, the Hindu–Arabic numeral system, complete with zero, reached Europe.

In my handwriting, I almost always write this digit as a slashed zero, 0.

More photos related to numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

θ | theta

The Greek letter θ (theta) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤈 (ṭēt) which meant “wheel”. The Cyrillic letter Ѳ (fita), derived from θ, was a part of the Russian alphabet until 1918. Gogol wrote in a footnote to Dead Souls:

«Ѳетюкъ — слово обидное для мужчины, происходитъ отъ Ѳ, буквы, почитаемой нѣкоторыми неприличною буквою.»
(“Thetuk” is an offensive word to a man, it comes from Ѳ, a letter thought by some indecent.)
Speaking of decency: according to Real Academia Española, this letter should be called zeta, perhaps to avoid using the word teta, while the letter ζ is supposed to be called dseta.

The lower-case letter θ has quite a few uses in maths and sciences, for instance:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

网 | wǎng

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: wǎng 🔊) means “net” or “web”. Note the tonal difference between and (wáng). Naturally, nowadays this word has acquired the modern meaning of “network”, as in information or communication network. Rather unsurprisingly, is short for 互联网 (Hùliánwǎng), “the Internet”.

is a simplified form of . In this particular case, the simplified character makes more sense than a traditional one — I don’t know what exactly the ancient Chinese had in mind but I like to think of as a doodle of a goal net.

More photos related to network and web @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 15 May 2017

η | eta

The Greek letter η (eta) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤇 (ḥēt) which, in turn, was derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph of courtyard.

The lower-case letter η has quite a few uses in maths, engineering and sciences, for instance:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

ζ | zeta

The Greek letter ζ (zeta) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤆 (zayin) which meant “sword” or some other weapon.

In the system of Greek numerals, the letters α to ε have the respective values 1 through 5. Bizarrely, ζ has the value of 7. This may account for the fact that chemists don’t like using Greek letters beyond ε when numbering the atoms in the chain. Still, the lower-case letter ζ has some uses in maths and sciences, for example:

More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.