What Are Variables? Part 1

How do variables work? How do you work with variables? And what’s up with x? Math Dude has the scoop on variables, algebra, and more.

Jason Marshall, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #149

What’s Up With x?

Speaking of generic variable names, have you ever wondered why the letter x is used so often in algebra? Like most things whose origins date back hundreds or thousands of years, nobody knows for sure. But there are some interesting ideas out there.

One explanation is that x is simply easy to write…which was a really big deal back in the day when people were scratching out the written word with feathers and ink. So perhaps that’s the reason. But there’s another interesting possibility. As we’ll see, the main focus of algebra is to solve for the unknown values of objects (aka, variables). As it turns out, the Arabic word for “object” (remember Al-Khwarizmi’s algebra book was written in Arabic) is “shei,” which when translated into Greek is “xei.” All it takes from there is one little abbreviation of “xei” down to “x” and, voilà, you’ve got yourself an explanation. Well, maybe…at least it’s an interesting possibility.

Wrap Up

Okay, that’s all the math we have time for today. Now that we know all about naming variables, it’s time to figure out exactly how variables work and how we can work with variables. Which is exactly what we’ll be talking about next week.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about algebra, please check out my book The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra.

Remember to become a fan of the Math Dude on Facebook where you’ll find lots of great math posted throughout the week. If you’re on Twitter, please follow me there, too. Finally, please send your math questions my way via Facebook, Twitter, or email at mathdude@quickanddirtytips.com.

Until next time, this is Jason Marshall with The Math Dude’s Quick and Dirty Tips to Make Math Easier. Thanks for reading, math fans!

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About the Author

Jason Marshall, PhD

Jason Marshall is the author of The Math Dude's Quick and Dirty Guide to Algebra. He provides clear explanations of math terms and principles, and his simple tricks for solving basic algebra problems will have even the most math-phobic person looking forward to working out whatever math problem comes their way.