Lost in translation

by Andrew Irving (on Saturday 12th September 2015)*

In the iconic closing scene of film classic “Lost in translation”, Bill Murray’s character embraces Scarlett Johansson’s, whispering something the audience cannot hear. Whatever he says, these words seem to relieve his co-star’s burdened soul.

Like me, many now believe that Murray is explaining why maths insist on using an x symbol for both multiplication and unknown values. This unnecessary ambiguity has, no doubt, been troubling her for some time.

Now, one man claims to know exactly what Murray said on that fateful day – Terry Moore!

After several centuries, he explains, Europe finally welcomed the ingenious system of algebra.  But there was a snag. The European tongue struggled to pronounce some of the key texts.

Unable to sound out the Arabic term for “some thing”, Spanish scholars borrowed a similar sound from the Greeks – the letter “chi”. Over time, the Greek symbol morphed into its Latin doppelganger, x.

Symbol for the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, chi.
Symbol for the 22nd letter of the Greek alphabet, chi.

That still doesn’t explain why we use an x symbol for multiplication though, does it?

Well, the “times by” symbol was introduced by one William Oughtred and, curiously, is not an x at all. An Anglican minister, Oughtred chose a Christian symbol – St. Andrew’s cross.

The Scottish flag, featuring St. Andrew's cross.
The Scottish flag, featuring St. Andrew’s cross.

With this, Johansson’s heart lifts – we do not use the letter x to represent both multiplication and unknowns.

In fact, as it turns out, we use it for neither!


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* This blog was based on the TED talk entitled ‘Why is ‘x’ the unknown?’ by Terry Moore.