Wednesday, 6 September 2023

Notes on Etymology and History of Math Terms - Tangrams

 Tangram is a name of a Chinese puzzle of seven pieces that became popular in England around the middle of the 19th century. It seems to have been brought back to England by Sailors returning from Hong Kong. The origin of the name is not definite. One theory is that it comes from the Cantonese word for chin. A second is that it is related to a mispronunciation of a Chinese term that the sailors used for the ladies of the evening from whom they learned the game. [Concubines on the floating brothels of Canton, Hong Kong, and many other ports belonged to an ethnic group called the Tanka whose ancestors came from the interior of the country to become fishermen and pearl divers. They were considered as non-chinese by the govenments of China until 1731. They were unique among Chinese women in refusing to have their feet bound. ] A third suggestion is that it is from the archaic Chinese root for the number seven, which still persists in the Tanabata festival on July seventh in Japan which celebrates the reunion of the weaver (vega) and the herdsman (altair). Whatever the origin of the name, the use of the seven shapes as a game in China were supposed to date back to the origin of the Chou dynasty over one thousand years before the common era. The Chinese name is Ch'i ch'iao t'u which translates, so I am told, as "ingenious plan of seven".

Puzzle books with shape challenges were common in Tangram books.

It appears however, that the game and the name are both much more modern than believed. From the website, I found that " The Tangram was invented between 1796 and 1802 in China by Yang-cho-chu-shih. He published the book Ch'i ch'iao t'u (Pictures using seven clever pieces). The first European publication of Tangrams was in 1817. The word Tangram itself was coined by Dr. Thomas Hill in 1848 for his book Geometrical Puzzles for the Young. He became the president of Harvard in 1862, and also invented the game Halma.

Jeff Miller's Earliest Use of Some Words in Mathematics contains the following.

"According to various dictionaries, the word may be derived from a Chinese word tang, or it may be derived from the obsolete English word trangam, meaning a trinket or a gimcrack. Merriam-Webster says the word is of unknown origin.

Trangam is found in a 1658 dictionary.

On June 11809, the American Citzien reported, "Vast numbers of those 'tangrams and gimcracks' are piled up in the office, of every shape and size, making it a great toy shop. [Joel S. Berson]

A classified advertisement in the Franklin Gazette of Feb. 241818, offers "Chinese Tangrams," which were probably puzzles [Bill Mullins]."

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