Take the 2-minute tour ×
Mathematics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for people studying math at any level and professionals in related fields. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I have a colleague in the English dept. who is wondering the reason why the word "integral" came to be used to represent the process by which the area under a curve can be found.

share|improve this question
In integration, you divide up a region into many small slices, estimate the areas of the slices separately, and add them together to get the area of the whole. Assembling many small parts into a whole is a common meaning of "integrate", which is derived from Latin integer, meaning "whole" or "entire". I hope it would not be too rude to suggest that your colleague in the English department should learn to look things up in an English-language etymological dictionary. –  MJD Nov 15 '12 at 16:47
Other quantities can also be integrated too. One can integrate density over space to get mass, velocity over time to get displacement, deposits/withdrawals/interest over time to get wealth, values weighted by probabilities to get averages, etc. So this speaks more generally to the idea that a range of quantities are being stitched together over said range. Don't know if these other viewpoints would have factored into the original naming process though. –  anon Nov 15 '12 at 16:49
Integrals are not necessarily related to the calculation of areas. That is one application of integrals, but that's all. –  Muphrid Nov 15 '12 at 16:51

2 Answers 2

The following etymological notes, from Jeff Miller's Earliest Known Uses of Some of the Words of Mathematics, may shed some light on the choice of names.

INTEGRAL CALCULUS. Leibniz originally used the term calculus summatorius (the calculus of summation) in 1684 and 1686.

Johann Bernoulli introduced the term integral calculus.

Cajori (vol. 2, p. 181-182) says:

At one time Leibniz and Johann Bernoulli discussed in their letters both the name and the principal symbol of the integral calculus. Leibniz favored the name calculus summatorius and the long letter [long S symbol] as the symbol. Bernoulli favored the name calculus integralis and the capital letter I as the sign of integration. ... Leibniz and Johann Bernoulli finally reached a happy compromise, adopting Bernoulli’s name "integral calculus," and Leibniz' symbol of integration.

According to Smith (vol. 2, page 696), Leibniz in 1696 adopted the term calculus integralis, already suggested by Jacques Bernoulli in 1690.

According to Stein and Barcellos (page 311), the term integral calculus is due to Leibniz.

The term "integral calculus" was used by Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, in which a character says, "If they'd told me at college that other people would have understood the integral calculus, and I didn't, then ambition would have come in."

INTEGRABLE is found in English in 1727-41 in Chambers' Cyclopaedia (OED2).

Integrable is also found in 1734 in An Examination of Dr. Burnet’s Theory of the Earth by John Keill and Maupertuis. [Google print search]

The word INTEGRAL first appeared in print by Jacob Bernoulli (1654-1705) in May 1690 in Acta eruditorum, page 218. He wrote, "Ergo et horum Integralia aequantur" (Cajori vol. 2, page 182; Ball). According to the DSB this represents the first use of integral "in its present mathematical sense."

However, Jean I Bernoulli (1667-1748) also claimed to have introduced the term. According to Smith (vol. I, page 430), "the use of the term 'integral' in its technical sense in the calculus" is due to him.

The following terms to classify solutions of nonlinear first order equations are due to Lagrange: complete solution or complete integral, general integral, particular case of the general integral, and singular integral (Kline, page 532).

share|improve this answer

In mathematics, an integral need not represent the area under the curve of a graph of the function. Also, integral might refer to integers also. For example, integral solutions of an equation means solutions can only be integers. I think mathematicians adopted this word because "to integrate" means to combine things so that they become a whole. This is almost a synonym of "to sum", and integration is practically like a sum, hence the symbol $\int $, which looks like the letter S -- for sum. Overall, the reason why "integral" might mean "area under the curve" and "integration" is the process of finding this area, is merely because it is the most obvious application.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.