The origin of x in maths

I’m still wrestling with the fallout from marking exams. Despite this, I found time to watch a short TED video posted recently that features Terry Moore explaining why x is used as an unknown in mathematics. Watch the video – only 4 minutes – or jump to the spoilers below if you want to know more.

The main idea is that the we use x because the Spanish used \chi (chi) as the first sound of the Arabic word for “something” because they couldn’t say the correct “sh” sound. I recollect a similar argument made somewhere else with slightly different details, though, sadly, I cannot remember them precisely, nor their location. I was unable to track down references at the time to verify this argument and so dismissed it as a Just So Story. Since it has resurfaced it would be interesting to see evidence. Does anyone know of any?

My reason for asking is that I’ve spent the last few years learning about Greek mathematics and I am interested in how it has been transmitted to us via the Arabic scholars and scientists. So far I’ve only read the popular accounts, Science and Islam: A History by Ehsan Masood and Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science by Jim Al-Khalili. The latter is good but spends the first few chapters explaining the history of Islam and various empires. Furthermore, one of the first bits, maybe the first bit, of science to be explained in depth is Eratosthenes’ measurement of the Earth, i.e., a high point of Hellenistic science. Obviously providing a context is important in a book but I still feel as though I don’t know much about the science from the Arabic world between the end of the Greek era and the beginning of the Renaissance. Currently I’m not sure where to look next for more information so suggestions for new leads are welcome.

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