Saturday, November 1, 2008

To the Eighth, Not the Nth

A simple one for this week.
zenzizenzizenzic (zen-zi-zen-zi-ZEN-zik) — adjective: raised to the eighth power. noun: a number raised to the eighth power.
A by that “simple” I mean a shirt explanation for a rather complex word.

Famously one of the most underutilized words in the English language, this one comes from the obsolete German word zenzic (meaning “a number squared”), which in turn came from the Italian censo, which itself was an approximation of the Arabic mál, meaning “possessions” or “property.” That we’d be back at Arabic should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of math. World Wide Words notes that “Arabs, like most mathematicians of those and earlier times, thought of a squared number as a depiction of an area, especially of land, hence property. So censo, and later our English zenzic, was for a while the word for a squared number.”

Wikipedia claims that it was coined by Welsh mathematician Robert Recorde in his 1557 book The Whetstone of Witte, though his spelling of it was zenzizenzizenzike. Recorde’s book is apparently the sole citation for the word in the Oxford English Dictionary. “It survives as a historical oddity,” Wikipedia notes.

Zenzizenzizenzic is related to such terms as zenzicube — “the sixth power of a number,” or that number’s square being cubed. Zenzizenzizenzic has the unique honor of being the English word with the most instances of the letter “z.”

Previous words of the week:

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