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.

Saturday, 13 May 2017

花 | huā

In Mandarin Chinese, the literal meaning of (Pinyin: huā 🔊) is “flower”. This word has many figurative meanings, such as “pattern” (floral or otherwise), “pinnacle”, “fireworks”, “a beauty” or “a lady of the night”. forms many compounds, such as 茶花 (cháhuā) “camellia”, 火花 (huǒhuā) “spark” and 水花 (shuǐhuā) “spray”.

The top part of this character, , means “grass”. We’ve seen this radical before as a part of (chá), “tea”. The bottom part, (huà), in its turn, consists of two , i.e. “people”: one upright () and another upside down, together symbolising “change” or “reversal”. According to Ponte Ryūrui,

The bottom part of (, , i.e. “action of making something”, “change”) acts purely phonetically, although certain etymology theories suggest to take as “a change” of the state of a plant (blossoming).
More photos related to flowers, fireworks and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 12 May 2017

ε | epsilon

The Greek letter ε (epsilon) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤄 () which meant “window”. In its turn, ε gave rise to the Latin e and a number of other letters.

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

α through ɛ appears to be the extent to which most people know the letter sequence of the Greek alphabet.

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

Thursday, 11 May 2017

δ | delta

The Greek letter δ (delta) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤃 (dālet) which, in turn, was derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph depicting a door.

The lower-case letter δ has many uses in maths and sciences, such as:

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

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

γ | gamma

The Greek letter γ (gamma) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤂 (gīml). One theory says that it represented a throwing stick, another links it to (an image of) a camel.

The lower-case letter γ has a number of uses in maths and sciences, for example:

  • in astronomy: the third brightest star in a constellation. For instance, Bellatrix is designated as γ Orionis.
  • in inorganic chemistry: a symbol for certain allotropes, for example γ-iron (austenite) or γ-sulfur
  • in mathematics: the Euler—Mascheroni constant, a mathematical constant with approximate value of 0.57721
  • in organic chemistry: γ-carbon, the third carbon atom in a chain when counting from a functional group. The names such as γ-aminobutyric acid (GABA) make use of this nomenclature.
  • in neurophysiology: γ-waves, a type of brain waves detected by electroencephalography
  • in phonetics: voiced velar fricative (IPA symbol ɣ)
  • in physics: γ is the symbol for a photon, probably derived from γ-rays or γ-radiation, a kind of electromagnetic radiation arising from the radioactive decay (γ-decay)
  • in special relativity: Lorentz factor
More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

β | beta

The Greek letter β (beta) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤁 (bet). The word alphabet originates from the Greek ἀλφάβητος (alphabētos), from ἄλφα (“alpha”) + βῆτα (“beta”).

The lower-case letter β has found many uses in maths and sciences, such as:

  • in astronomy: the second brightest star in a constellation. For instance, Rigel is designated as β Orionis
  • in biochemistry: β-sheet, a type of protein secondary structure
  • in biology: β cell, a type of cell found in the pancreatic islets of the pancreas. The primary function of a β cell is to produce insulin.
  • in inorganic chemistry: a symbol for certain allotropes, for example β-tetragonal boron, β-germanium, and β-tin
  • in mathematics: β(s), the Dirichlet beta function
  • in natural product chemistry: a stereodescriptor used in a number of different ways
  • in nuclear physics: beta particle, a high-energy electron (β) or positron (β+) emitted in the radioactive decay; β-decay is a radioactive process in which an atomic nucleus emits an β-particle
  • in organic chemistry: β-carbon, the second carbon atom in a chain when counting from a functional group
  • in pharmacology: β1, β2 and β3, subtypes of adrenergic receptors
  • in phonetics: voiced bilabial fricative (IPA symbol β)
  • in special relativity: a symbol for the speed of an object relative to the speed of light: β = v/c
  • in thermodynamics and fluid mechanics: a symbol for compressibility
  • in zoology: β animals, which often act as second-in-command to the reigning α-males and/or α-females
More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 8 May 2017

α | alpha

The Greek letter α (alpha) was derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤀 (ʾālep) which, in turn, was derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph of an ox’s head.

The lower-case letter α has found many uses in maths and sciences, such as:

  • in astronomy: the brightest star in a constellation. For instance, Betelgeuse is designated as α Orionis
  • in biochemistry: α-helix, a type of protein secondary structure
  • in inorganic chemistry: a symbol for certain (usually the most common) allotropes, for example α-iron, α-phosphorus, and α-sulphur
  • in natural product chemistry: a stereodescriptor used in a number of different ways
  • in navigation: a symbol for azimuth
  • in neurophysiology: α-waves, a type of brain waves detected by electroencephalography
  • in nuclear physics: alpha particle, α or α2+, a historical name of doubly ionised helium nuclei (He2+) ; α-decay is a radioactive process in which an atomic nucleus emits an α-particle
  • in organic chemistry: the α-carbon is the first carbon atom attached to a functional group; α-amino acids are amino acids with an amino group bound directly to the α-carbon
  • in pharmacology: α1 and α2, subtypes of adrenergic receptors
  • in physics: a symbol for angular acceleration
  • in physics: the fine-structure constant
  • in zoology: α-males and α-females, the highest ranking individuals in a community of social animals
More photos of letters, numbers and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

白 | bái

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: bái 🔊) means “white”, “clear”, “pure”, “bright” and a number of other meanings which at some point probably were related to colour white: “spoken language”, “free of charge”, “in vain” or “funeral”.

Does it look and sound familiar? This is because we’ve already came across (bǎi), “hundred”. You may also recall that the shape of is a combination of and .

According to Uncle Hanzi, is a pictogram “of a white cotton bobin” while Wiktionary says its original meaning was “acorn”:

The character acquired its current meaning of white from the color of the acorn’s flesh. The original meaning has been lost.
More photos related to acorns, white and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

好 | hǎo | hào

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: hǎo 🔊) means “good”, “well”, “nice”, “easy” and so on. This character also has another, slightly different pronunciation (hào 🔊) meaning “to like” or “to be easy to”.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that is made up of two familiar characters, and . But why? According to Wiktionary,

The widely accepted meaning of this character is that the characters for “female” () and “child” () were put together to form a compound because it was good for a woman to have a child. Similarly, it has been proposed that the compound originally refers to the mutual affection between the mother and child, which then extended to mean “good”. These theories are supported by the smaller found in some oracle bones and bronze inscriptions.
However, broader interpretations of the second character could lead to other theories. could also mean “son”, so it may have meant two children, a boy and a girl next to each other, which is a good fortune to have a boy and a girl. could also mean “man”, so it may have referred to the love between a man and a woman, which is good. Duan Yucai, in his annotated version of Shuowen, interpreted it as originally referring to the beauty of 女子 (nǚzǐ, “woman”). Lastly, it could mean that the “attitude” of a girl was considered good.
More photos related to children, women and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Friday, 5 May 2017

子 | zǐ

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) has many meanings. As a noun, it can signify “a child”, “an offspring”, “a son”, “a person”, “a seed” or “an egg”, while as an adjective, it means “young” or “small”.

Curiously, a combination of “man” with , 男子 (nánzǐ), still means “a man”, not “a boy” as one would expect; similarly, + = 女子 (nǚzǐ) means “a woman”, not “a girl”. (This is not the case in Japanese where 男子 and 女子 mean exactly that: “a boy” and “a girl”, respectively.) However, an anagram of 女子, 子女 (zǐnǚ), means “children”, i.e. “sons and daughters”.

Many historical forms of show a baby with a large head and spread arms (the legs are presumably swaddled). To remember the pronunciation of this word, I think of it as a variant of Latin letter Ƶ (pronounced American way, /ziː/ 🔊).

More photos related to children and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

男 | nán

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: nán 🔊) means “male” or “son”. A combination with “people”, 男人 (nánrén 🔊), means “(an adult) man” or “husband”.

is made of two ideograms: “field” and “strength” (this latter character could have evolved from a pictogram of a plough). In old times, ploughing (and working the field in general) was a man’s job. In most of the historical forms of , the “field” is positioned either on top or to the left of the “plough”. Also, in an alternative character the “field” is on the left side. The “plough” part looks a bit like lower-case letter n which helps me to remember that nán is a “man” which starts with n.

More photos related to men and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

女 | nǚ

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “woman”, “daughter” or, when applied to people, “female”. A combination with “people”, 女人 (nǚrén 🔊), means “(an adult) woman”, “wife” or “mistress”.

According to Ponte Ryūrui, “is a pictograph of a woman kneeling on the ground, shown with her arms entangled, holding a garment” while Wiktionary says that it is

a woman with breasts kneeling or standing. In modern form turned on left side: enclosed area is remnant of left breast (character’s left, depicted woman’s right), while right breast has disappeared. Graphically cognate to (, “mother”), which has developed similarly, but also includes dots for nipples and has retained both breasts.
I prefer thinking of as two entangled Greek letters ν (nu) which, incidentally, helps me to remember its pronunciation.

More photos related to women and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

母 | mǔ

In Mandarin Chinese, (Pinyin: 🔊) means “mother”, or, when applied to an animal, “female”.

This character has evolved from a pictogram of a woman with rather exaggerated breasts with nipples. The historical forms of show a standing or kneeling female figure. In the modern form, the woman’s chest is rectangular and rotated 90° so the whole affair now looks more like a chest of drawers.

More photos related to women and sea glass @ Shutterstock.

Monday, 1 May 2017

φ | phi

The origin of the Greek letter φ (phi) is unclear but it could have been derived from the ancient Phoenician letter 𐤒 (qōp).

In mathematics, 𝜑 is a symbol for the golden ratio, an irrational number with approximate value of 1.61803. The symbol was proposed by Mark Barr after the Greek sculptor Phidias (Φειδίας) who is said to have employed it in his creations. 𝜑 is a solution of the polynomial equation x2x − 1 = 0.

The regular pentagram includes five acute and five obtuse isosceles triangles. In all of them, the ratio of the longer side to the shorter side is 𝜑.

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