In English and some other languages (such as Portuguese and possibly Italian), the word "calculus" is actually an abbreviation from "differential and integral calculus" that has taken the meaning of the whole expression.

Part of my question is whether the word is still used alone in the language with its former meaning of computation, or can it only appear with a qualifier specifying what kind of computation it can be, for example "tensor calculus", "construction calculus" or "lambda-calculus".

I did not find any example of the use of calculus alone in English with its original meaning, except for one case I was given as example: "it does not enter my calculus". However my feeling is that "someone's calculus", i.e. calculus with a possessive or a genitive is a kind of frozen expression meaning "someone's plans", and hence does not qualify. Would you agree?

I would appreciate comments on this, and possibly technical names for the phenomenon. I am not a native speaker of any of the languages mentioned here (and for some, not a speaker at all).

This derives from a question on SE: https://cs.stackexchange.com/questions/22126

  • The "original meaning" is still used in dentistry, where calculus is the name for the pebbly accumulation of tartar on one's teeth. Calculus is the Latin word for 'pebble', and pushing pebbles around on the abacus was what calculation originally meant. Or didn't you mean that original?
    – jlawler
    Mar 1, 2014 at 22:39
  • 1
    Thanks @jlawler. It is also a kidney problem. But I did not mean the ethymological meaning and its current uses. I should have been clearer about that. I am only concerned with the more recent meaning as a computation system, and whatever derived from that. The fact is that in French or German, the equivalent of calculus does not mean derivatives and integrals, unless you specify it. Speakers of these languages tend to be confused, and think that in English, calculus means the whole of mathematical analysis, which is not the case.
    – babou
    Mar 1, 2014 at 22:46
  • sorry about my spelling. I wish comments could be updated,
    – babou
    Mar 2, 2014 at 8:00

1 Answer 1


Misleading to refer to abbreviation in this context. If we leave out words in a fixed expression, e.g. Watergate affair > Watergate, that's sometimes referred to as truncation—though I agree with the dictionary there that it's confusing to do so: truncation usually refers to dropping bound morphemes, not words. Though it too is ambiguous, ellipsis or elliptical construction would be more readily understood.

But the underlying process you're alluding to here is not a syntactic one (differential and integral calculus > calculus), but a semantic one (calculus = "calculation" > "the Newton and Leibnitz kind of calculation"). I'm assuming people didn't routinely rattle off the phrase differential and integral calculus, after all (outside of textbook names), for them to be forced to shorten the expression.

The semantic process involved is semantic narrowing or specialisation. See also in Wikipedia:

Typology by Bloomfield (1933)

Narrowing: Change from superordinate level to subordinate level. For example, skyline formerly referred to any horizon, but now in the USA it has narrowed to a horizon decorated by skyscrapers.

Typology by Blank (1999)

Specialization of meaning: Downward shift in a taxonomy, e.g., corn "grain" → "wheat" (UK), → "maize" (US).

Ellipsis: Semantic change based on the contiguity of names, e.g., car "cart" → "automobile", due to the invention of the (motor) car.

  • Good points ... but are the original meanings lost in the cases you described? Can I say (in US English) a mountain skyline, with no skyscrapers, in the same way I can say tensor calculus .
    – babou
    Jul 19, 2018 at 19:02
  • Initially, the narrower meaning is the default; eventually, it becomes the only admissible meaning. Mountain skyline does sound strange to me. Jul 20, 2018 at 1:05

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