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Maths Words to Drive You Crazy

Updated on August 26, 2019

You hear a word or see it in print and, after googling its meaning, you are still at a loss as to how it truly represents the creator’s semantic intent. This is especially true in the language of mathematics, where I am convinced words were assigned meanings by unimaginative (or overimaginative) mathematicians.

Let’s look at some of these in a not too serious way.

acute angle

We can all see a cute angle on this shapely lady, but actually, an acute angle is an angle between 0 and 90 degrees.

complementary angle

To ‘suck up’ to your employer, you might first look at all ‘angles’ of flattery to find the best compliment to pay the boss.

However, in this case, complementary angles sum to 90 degrees, such as 40 degrees and 50 degrees shown here.

Note the homophone; complementary versus complimentary.

And note also the whimsical connotations of the word ‘homophone’. Could it also mean a telephone used exclusively by gay people?


The word sounds a bit anal, doesn’t it? But its meaning has nothing to do with biology or bodily functions. It refers to the area between two circles.

latus rectum

This Latin phrase is reminiscent of our previous word ‘annulus’ only in that sounds anal. And in case you are thinking its translation from the Latin is ‘latest bum’, it certainly bears no relationship with buttock enhancements of any kind.

In fact, it describes the perpendicular line depicted in the conic shape shown.


A catenary is not a house for cats! Try it and you’ll find that it has no relevance to the idiom ‘not enough room to swing a dead cat’.

A catenary is the shape created under the force of gravity.

degenerate case

A degenerate case does not refer to a trial involving immoral or dishonest conduct, in particular, a slease bag criminal lining the palm of the corrupt cop. Rather, it is a special case of a mathematical problem when given special conditions. The example shows the degenerate case of the unit circle obtained from the general equation of a circle.

defective number

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, along comes this gem, a ‘defective number’. As a non-mathematician you might reason, quite sensibly, that the mathematician should either fix or reject it. However, a defective number is a number whose divisors are less than twice the number. For example, the divisors of 4 are 1, 2 and 4, and 1 + 2 + 4 =7 which is less than 2 x 4 = 8.


By now you may be convinced that eccentricity refers to mathematicians who behave strangely, but that’s not true.

It is the amount of deviation of a shape from being a circle.

extraction of root

Root extraction is something a dentist does, but in mathematical jargon it does not mean pulling out numbers.

It is the square root of a number, such as the square root of 9 being 3.


Fields are used for animals to feed on, by farmers to plant on and by picnickers to frolic on, but mathematicians envision a field as a set of numbers satisfying certain conditions, such as referring to the ‘set of even numbers’.

Horner's method

If you know your nursery rhymes, you will think that it explains how Little Jack Horner eats pie.

But that’s not the case. It’s actually a way of finding the roots of a polynomial.

imaginary number

If the number is imaginary, why, you might ask, would a mathematician have to worry about it? Or does it even exist? Better to let philosophers ponder over it.

An imaginary number called i has the property that i × i = -1.

irrational number

If a number is irrational, shouldn’t it be locked up in an asylum?

In maths, an irrational number cannot be written as a fraction, such as pi=3.142.


We have two legs, which is also how many are needed to refer to the side of a right-angled triangle adjacent to the right-angle.

L'Hopital's rule

This is not an instruction to be obeyed when you visit a hospital.

It is named after the mathematician Guillaume de l’Hopital, who developed a way of dealing with division by zero.

saddle point

You might rationalise that a saddle point is a particular point on a horse’s saddle, but it refers to a section of a shape resembling the shape of a saddle.

vulgar fractions

You might think they are called vulgar fractions because they don’t know how to behave.

In fact, a vulgar fraction is the old fashioned term for what we now refer to as a fraction.

Now that you have been introduced to a fruitful selection of mathematics terms and phrases, it begs the question:

Do you want to be a mathematician or to have any dealings with one?


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