I did not take calculus in high school. (I barely made it through basic math.) All I know about calculus is that it is a branch of mathematics that involves a certain type of calculation that entails the study of rates of change.

The word *calculus* has an interesting etymology. It’s a diminutive of the Latin word for pebble, *calyx*. A calculus is a “little pebble.”

Aside from mathematics, calculus has a medical application. A renal calculus is a kidney stone.

The association of pebbles with mathematical computation comes from the use of them with a Roman abacus. (Not the kind made with beads on wires. That kind originated in China.)

The Latin word *abacus* can refer to more than one thing:

square flat surface

sideboard

gaming board

table

flat slab on top of a column

painted ceiling panel.

An abacus for counting was a table top marked with parallel lines. Pebbles or other counters were placed along the lines, which had place value.

Because I associate the word *calculus* with mathematics and science, the use of the word in the general news media never fails to startle me into an Inigo Montoya moment. Is *calculus* really the most apt word in the context? Sometimes, it seems that *calculations, planning*, or *strategy*

might be a better choice.

[Besides taking] fewer trips, travelers are holding out for last-minute deals. This is forcing tour operators to revise their calculus and cancel more trips.

That does not mean that Swartz had a right to do what he did or not to be punished. But his motives should have been an important part of the government’s calculus.

The impact on economic growth in the capital is only beginning and seems likely to fundamentally alter the market’s investment calculus.

More ubiquitous than plain *calculus* is the term *political calculus*. The Ngram Viewer shows this phrase rising from the 1980s. A web search brings up 89,400,000 hits.

In the following uses, perhaps other choices might convey a clearer meaning:

The surprisingly simple political calculus behind ‘cancel culture’ (purpose?)

Spotting the political calculus behind some acts of corporate charity (strategy?)

Now a federal judge has upset the political calculus behind the restriction, as well. (intention?)

I’m not saying that *calculus* can’t be appropriate in a political context. William H. Riker and Peter C. Ordeshook’s “voting calculus” looks mathematical to me.

V=pB−C+D

V= the proxy for the probability that the voter will turn out

p= probability of vote “mattering”

B= “utility” benefit of voting–differential benefit of one candidate winning over the other

C= costs of voting (time/effort spent)

D= citizen duty, goodwill feeling, psychological and civic benefit of voting

Two things may be at work that cause commentators to choose “political calculus” over more transparent words like* intentions, purpose*, or *strategy*.

One, *calculus* sounds so much more esoteric.

Two, something subliminal may be at work. *Calculus* belongs to a family of words that includes *calculating*, in the sense of “shrewdly or selfishly reckoning the chances of gain or advantage.”

Synonyms for the adjective *calculating*:

cunning

crafty

wily

shrewd

sly

scheming

devious

designing

conniving

Machiavellian

Come to think of it, “political calculus” may be the perfect phrase when discussing issues with political ramifications.

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Original post: Calculus Etymology