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    The author of this question asks whether etymological questions are acceptable on MO.

    I am personally lukewarm about it. What does the community think?


    I agree. Etymological questions about mathematical words are not mathematical questions. There are other resources for such questions, e.g. the OED, which does answer this question (although there is apparently a totally unrelated meaning of the word "symplectic" in English; I don't know if Weyl was aware of this).

    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeNov 7th 2010

    I learned about the other meaning from Tim Perutz's webpage.

    I'm inclined to think that the same rule should apply for the OED as for Wikipedia, viz: if the obvious search finds the answer (as it does in this case), then the question isn't suitable for MO. My only reservation is that the OED isn't free to access. Most universities in Anglophone countries have subscriptions (although in my time as a PhD student there Imperial didn't, the philistines) but perhaps that's too much to assume elsewhere?

    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeNov 7th 2010
    I'm sure there are separate websites for discussing insects. It is a respected branch of biology, taxonomy, etc.

    @Will Jagy: if that was meant to be a pun, that's horrible! If I made a typo somewhere, please tell.


    I'll just note, this question is answered on Wikipedia. My general feeling is that if you've really done your due diligence and have come up dry, then it is OK to ask an etymological question, but they should be used rather sparingly.

    • CommentAuthorWill Jagy
    • CommentTimeNov 7th 2010
    Willie, thank you, I do my best. No typo.

    You are a little young for this, but there was a Saturday Night Live character named Emily Litella. Emily would make these long rants based on some incorrectly heard word. Finally somebody would manage to break in and say Emily, no, it was about ____. She would stop and say "Oh that's very different.... Never Mind."

    This is a good example of a usage question which is probably appropriate.

    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeNov 7th 2010

    Good point, Ben. That relieves my unease at presuming that everyone has access to the OED. It seems like there's some consensus here that this question was inappropriate. Bearing that in mind, I'm going to vote to close.


    I would vote to close etymological questions on the basis of it not being the expected area of expertise of anyone on the site. There may well be people here who have a side interest in etymology - or even entomology - but how should I (as Joe Mathematician) judge who is an expert in that or just expressing an opinion? For a mathematical question then I can judge the quality of the answer (if not, I shouldn't have asked that question), but for these side issues then I have no way of assessing the accuracy of an answer.

    • CommentAuthorMariano
    • CommentTimeNov 7th 2010

    I would sometimes not vote to close, as sometimes the etymology of a word as it is used in mathematics is completely unrelated to its etymology as a word as it is used by regular humans. Also, I don't have access to the OED ( :( )


    Right, but if you suspect that's the case you should phrase your question as a math history question, not as an etymology question.

    • CommentAuthorHJRW
    • CommentTimeNov 8th 2010

    Mariano, in this case your criterion would apply, but nevertheless both the OED and Wikipedia (as Ben points out!) give the etymology of the mathematical word.