Roots of Unity

Roots of Unity

Mathematics: learning it, doing it, celebrating it.

Collective Nouns for Mathematicians


A "proof" of mathematicians at the 2013 Joint Mathematics Meetings in San Diego. Image: American Mathematical Society.

Every once in a while I stumble on an interesting collective noun, usually for animals: a parliament of owls, a knot of toads, an exaltation of larks. I'll be at the Joint Math Meetings this week with several thousand of my best mathematical friends, so it seems appropriate to figure out what to call a group of mathematicians. Even that word "group" is loaded, though. It has a precise meaning in algebra, so other mathematicians might feel left out if we use it as the collective noun for mathematicians in general. (It's rather dull anyway. No offense, group theorists.)

I have heard an "awkward" suggested as an appropriate collective noun for mathematicians, but that is unkind and (nearly half the time) inaccurate. I humbly suggest that a collection of mathematicians should instead be called a "proof" because proofs bring us together across all different subdisciplines of mathematics. (Plus, it reminds me of "pride," and lions are cool.)

Coming up with appropriate collective nouns for practitioners of the subdisciplines is an entertaining pastime in an of itself. Some participants at a recent conference I attended got on the subject, and this list contains some of their suggestions. (The conference was on character varieties; naturally, we decided that we should be called "a variety of characters.") Here are some of our suggestions.

A group of algebraists

A sequence of analysts, or an epsilon for just a few of them

A tuple of number theorists

A Cantor of set theorists

A Noether of ring theorists

A stack of algebraic geometers, or a scheme of particularly conniving ones

A model of applied mathematicians

A filter of...whatever the mathematicians are who study filters—an ultrafilter if they're really impressive

A clique of graph theorists

A quiver of category theorists

A weak mix of halfhearted dynamicists, or a strong mix of enthusiastic ones

A Euclid of geometers, a Lobachevsky of hyperbolic geometers

A knot of low-dimensional topologists (sorry you have to share the noun with toads), or a tangle for a whole lot of them

A bundle of topologists

A distribution of probabilists

An inference of statisticians (or a regression if they're not on their best behavior)

Unsurprisingly, my conference buddies and I weren't the first people to come up with witty collective nouns for mathematicians. The website all-sorts has a list of suggestions for mathematicians in general. (My favorite might be the simple "number.") And the blog eon specializes with such suggestions as "a residue of complex analysts" and "a permutation of combinatorists." (Though really, wouldn't "combination" be more appropriate? Combinatorists are egalitarian: order doesn't matter! But I guess "a combination of combinatorists" doesn't really roll off the tongue.)

Did I leave off your mathematical discipline from the list, or did I miss a good one? Please share your favorite mathematical collective nouns with me! And if you're in Baltimore for the meetings this week, I hope to see you there. If not, maybe you'd like to follow along by reading Adriana Salerno's blog.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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