Tag Archives: Typology

February 20, 2012, 7:32 pm

The origin of the “nabla” symbol

We’re about to start working with gradient vectors in Calculus 3, and this topic uses a curious mathematical symbol: the nabla, which looks like: \(\nabla\). This symbol has several mathematical uses, one of which is for gradients; if \( f  \) is a function of two or more variables then \( \nabla f \) is its gradient. But there does not appear to be a use for the symbol outside mathematics (and mathematical physics).

One of my students asked me about the origin of this symbol, and I had to confess I didn’t know. I always figured it was somehow related to the much more common capital Greek delta, \( \Delta \), but the real story is a lot more colorful than that.

The nabla is so-called because it looks like a harp; the Greek word for the Hebrew or Egyptian form of a harp is “nabla” . What does a harp have to do with mathematics? The image came up in relation to mathematics…

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