Q&A #19376

Caret symbol: ^

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From: Pat Ballew (for Teacher2Teacher Service)
Date: Mar 13, 2008 at 07:56:18
Subject: Re: Caret symbol: ^

Here is what I have on my mathwords page at

Caret / Carat/ Karat, and yes Carrot
The three words above are a frequent source of confusion. The symbol ^ used
as an exponent in mathematics comes from the same symbol used in
proofreading to indicate something is missing. The word for this symbol is
caret and it is drawn from the Latin root carere which literally means to
cut off or be without, but came to mean something is missing. The basic root
refers to cutting, or cutting off, and is the same root that gives us
castrate (to cut off), castle (a building cut off from the surrounding
danger), caste (a people cut off from the rest of society), and chaste (cut
off from certain pleasures).

Part of the confusion is because the caret symbol, ^, looks like a little
horn, and the root of carat is the Greek keration which means a little horn
according to my dictionary. Some other possible origins are given below.
Perhaps at some time animal horns were used as a reference for weight, but
now the carat represents a weight equal to 200 milligrams. The standard is
used for precious stones such as diamonds. The web page How Many? A
Dictionary of Units of Measurement, offers two alternatives to the "little
horn" meaning of carat. One suggestion is that the word comes from an Arabic
word for the seed of a coral tree. Another suggestion is that the Greek word
was for the name of a carob bean. Perhaps the carob bean or the coral tree
seed or both look like a little horn.

Karat also relates to precious materials, in this case gold. A karat is a
unit of purity for gold representing 1/24 gold. 12 karet gold is 50% gold
and 50% other material. It is drawn from the same root as carat. To add to
the confusion, it seems that the British spell both words with a c, Germans
spell both with a k, and in the US we use one of each.

The familiar garden vegetable called a carrot is from the same root as
keration. The ancient root has left its mark with words ranging from
migraine to cervix, and the English "hart" for a stag.

Hope that helps.

 -Pat Ballew, for the T2T service

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