Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Tom from Traverse City called in to make an observation about a word used in an ad running on WTCM. The ad speaks of a sales price that is “only a fraction of what our competitors charge.” Tom’s point was twofold: (1) a fraction doesn’t have to be a small amount—think 99/100th of the solar system, for instance; and (2) a fraction should be definitive, not just a vague synonym for small.

In math, that would be accurate. There, a fraction is an expression for a definite portion of a unit or magnitude of whatever size. But the word did not start as a math term. It derives from the Latin frangere, to break into pieces. The past participle is fractus.

In the 16th century, this was the word to describe breaking the Eucharistic host into pieces during the liturgy. During that period, it was also used as a synonym for refraction of light and for smashing anything material.

It was also used as a surgical term for a bone fracture. Then it branched into figurative use as discord or dissension, a breach of the peace. The arithmetical use of fraction to signify a number less than a whole first appears in print in Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe.

Eventually, it showed up in fields as disparate as surveying, chemistry, and Communist Party organization in the 1920s.

NOTE: Words to the Wise received a favorable review in Andrea McDougal’s Word Nerds Rejoice: Top 25 Blogs For Editing Geeks.

Available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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