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 http://www.pballew.net/arithm17.html#caret 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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