In the ongoing process of unboxing books, I just ran across one I hadn’t looked at in ages: Philip J. Davis‘s The Thread. Davis is a mathematician known (says Wikipedia) “for his work in numerical analysis and approximation theory,” and in 1963 he published a book, Interpolation and Approximation, which (again according to Wikipedia) is “still an important reference in this area.” The Thread begins with the publication of that book (after much travail, including a printers’ strike and the purchase of the publisher by a bigger publisher) and, after a few years, the receipt of a letter from a Scottish mathematician who praised the book but said:

“…your presentation is flawed by your insistence on spelling Chebyshev‘s name as ‘Tschebyscheff.’ This barbaric, Teutonic, non-standard orthography will gain you no friends. I sincerely hope that when you come to prepare the second edition of your book you will alter this incorrect and irritating spelling. Yours faithfully, John Begg, Professor of Mathematics.”

The rest of the book is a madly digressive attempt to explain why his impulse was to tell the man “to go fry his fish elsewhere”; this involves a brief history of mathematics in general and Russian mathematics in particular, an explanation of how the Cyrillic alphabet came to be and why the name in question “appears in six different spellings,” the Coptic origin of the name Pafnuty, and many other things. If whimsical digression gives you pleasure and you can bear nontechnical discussion of mathematics, you should definitely investigate this little (124-page) book, whose bibliography includes Helen Waddell’s The Desert Fathers, O. R. Kuehene’s A Study of the Thaïs Legend, I. V. Kuznetsova’s Lyudi Russkoi Nauki, Thomas R. Hazard’s The Jonny-Cake Papers, René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz’s Oracles and Demons of Tibet, and the Erinnerungsblätter der Mathematischen Gesellschaft zu Jena (Jena, 1859-1877), inter alia.
Oh, and a fact he never mentions: the name is pronounced che-bi-SHOF. Ah, Russian!


  1. When I was in college, a certain know-it-all in my engineering mathematics class made himself famous by raising his hand in the middle of the final exam and asking for a table of Chebyshev polynomials.

  2. I think someone at my high school did something like that, but I honestly doubt he knew what he was saying… Also, does the book deal the the mathematics of Russia, or the origins Cryllic? I was a bit confused on the subject of this book.

  3. Both. There is no real “subject,” it’s just following threads of association and telling stories.

  4. Uhm, why did Nikolai Karamzin or Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova Dashkova pick the shape E to replace the I-O ligature?

  5. Off topic “The mathematical experience” by Philip Davis and Reuben Hersh is an amusing collection of articles about the cultural context of mathematics. Highly recommended if you know some higher math such as what they teach in engineering schools.

  6. When I emigrated from Russia as a child, I somehow decided to transliterate my name as “Afinogenov” instead of “Afinoguenov.” This error will plague me for the rest of my life–because everyone assumes that the “g” is soft, when it’s actually hard (as the “u” is supposed to indicate, as I learned later). I have met four or five people, ever, who could say it correctly (including the accent on the “e”).
    Oy vey.

  7. Throbert McGee says:

    The spelling “Afinoguenov” would still be problematic — is the gu pronounced as in “guess,” or as in “penguin”?
    To avoid (ahem) ambiguity, a better transliteration would’ve been “Afinoggenov” — no native English speaker would have any confusion about how the double-g is pronounced. (Although they’d probably put the accent on the first “o,” and there’s not much you can do about that.)

  8. Throbert: Aye, but this ratty-looking Jew won’t be a good match for such a Viking name.

  9. Afinogenov has got to be one of the most impressive names I’ve seen, right up there with Amfiteatrov. (They’re both from Greek, the former from Αθηνογένης.)

  10. I think you have a misspelling in your post, that Erinnungsblätter should be Erinnerungsblätter

  11. Quite right, I’ll fix it — thanks!

  12. A bit of Turkic etymology for the name:
    Proto-Turkic: *čepiĺ
    Altaic etymology:
    Meaning: a half-year or 1-year-old kid
    Russian meaning: (полу)годовалый козленок
    Karakhanid: čepiš (MK)
    Turkish: čepiš, čepič
    Uighur: čivič
    Azerbaidzhan: čäpiš
    Turkmen: čebiš
    Halaj: čapiš (

  13. Thanks! Unbegaun doesn’t give an etymology for it, so I had been wondering.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Uhm, why did Nikolai Karamzin or Princess Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova Dashkova pick the shape E to replace the I-O ligature?

    The latter was in use, and still is, for /ju/. /jo/ didn’t exist — except as a recent derivation of /je/. So the shape Ë was chosen, with a diacritic, and then the Russians conspired to leave the diacritic off on every occasion except for transcribing Japanese (and, thankfully, on Wikipedia). Only the Mongolians really use it.

    the name is pronounced che-bi-SHOF.

    Russian does have final devoicing, but /v/ is largely exempted. The traditional transcription of surnames in -ff gives me cramps in my jaw muscles every time I see it.

  15. I thought /u/ had both Y (У) and O-Yѹк) variants, like in Greek, and so /ju/ was I-O-Y, which explains the Ю shape. (Likewise /ja/ I-A -> Я.) Was Е then invented to replace I-E (Ѥ) for /je/? And Ё only added when /jo/ developed phonetically? And so the shape with diacritic has etymological justification? I thought I had read that Е was invented for /jo/ and then Ё tried briefly around WW2 and effectively retired except in childrens’ books and dictionaries since.
    In other words, what is the famous invention of the above articles, as part of the spelling reform or to fill the need in the dictionary, respectively? Ё for /jo/, Е for /je/ (with some developing into /jo/ later), or Е for /jo/?

  16. Maybe Ё was invented to distinguish Е /jo/ from Е /je/? Is that it? And what I read (my Cold War Russian isn’t very good) was about the period in which it was made standard for all works, not just dictionaries.
    Can one predict Е(Ё) /jo/ and Е /je/ solely from the surrounding phonetic environment, that is, without recourse to the lexicon? I didn’t think so.

  17. Back to the etymology, though. The Tatar word is the more likely source (in fact, it was the first to come to mind; I wonder why it is not represented in the Starling database.):
    чебеш (чебешкә, чебеше) и. цыплёнок || цыплячий; сары чеби жёлтый цыплёнок
    4. Фамилии, основы которых восходят к названиям птиц: Чебешев (чебеш – «цыпленок»), Куркин (күркə – «индейка»), Ябалаков (ябалак – «сова») и др.

  18. fond memories of reading this book 10 or 15 years ago… that’s the same kind of scholar i am. i find something weird & track it back. it had never occurred to me before this book that anyone else might find the process interesting.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Can one predict Е(Ё) /jo/ and Е /je/ solely from the surrounding phonetic environment, that is, without recourse to the lexicon?

    No. There are (a few) minimal pairs that can only be told apart from context. Still, Ё is always stressed, so if you know where the stress goes (ha!), you can predict it fairly well.

    I thought [...] /ju/ was I-O-Y, which explains the Ю shape.


    Was Е then invented to replace I-E (Ѥ) for /je/?

    I think Ѥ was retired when E had itself developed into /je/ in, AFAIK, all Slavic languages except Bulgarian. (Bulgarian for “one” really is /edin/, /edna/, /edno/; compare /jeden/ elsewhere… except in Russian… erm…)

    And Ё only added when /jo/ developed phonetically?

    At least when it had become phonemic.

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