Two meanings of “argument”

The most common use of the word “argument” is to describe a disagreement.  So the first time you hear “argument” to mean something you pass into a function (either a mathematical function or a programming language function), it sounds odd. How did “argument” come to mean two very different things? Here is an explanation.

It is curious to track the path by which the word “argument” came to have two different meanings, one in mathematics and the other in everyday English. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word derives from the Latin for “to make clear, prove”; thus it came to mean, by one thread of derivation, “the evidence offered as proof”, which is to say, “the information offered”, which led to its meaning in Lisp. But in the other thread of derivation, it came to mean “to assert in a manner against which others may make counter assertions”, which led to the meaning of the word as a disputation.

Taken from An Introduction to Programming in Emacs Lisp.

Update: As Dave Richeson points out in the comments below, there are really three meanings of “argument” being discussed.

8 thoughts on “Two meanings of “argument”

  1. I’d say you and the quote are referring to three different uses of “argument.” One is an “argument between” two people (describing a disagreement). The second is the input for a function. But the third is the original definition described in the OED: a logical or mathematical argument—a proof! This need not be one side of a disagreement.

  2. “People generally quarrel because they cannot argue.” –G.K. Chesterton

    As we lose our ability to argue logically, the word argument takes on more and more of an antagonistic connotation, further separating these various meanings.

  3. And what about argument, the angle of a complex number? That one always struck me as strange. Surely it’s not derived from the name Argand!

  4. @I. J. Kennedy

    Earliest Known Uses of
    Some of the Words of Mathematics


    To illustrate the meaning “the angle, arc, or other mathematical quantity, from which another required quantity may be deduced, or on which its calculation depends” the OED quotes from the Franklin’s Tale line 549 “Hise othere geeris, As been his centris and hise Argumentz” and from the Treatise on the Astrolabe. xliv. 54 “To knowe the mene mote and the argumentis of any planete.”

  5. It’s interesting to note that in Portuguese, the word “argumento” does not have the antagonistic connotation and simply means “a point”, as in “a logical argument”. However, the word that was ‘distorted’ into having antagonistic overtones was “discussão” (discussion). So, in Portuguese, you might say “nós não estávamos discutindo, nós estávamos apenas argumentando”, to actually mean “we were not arguing, we were only discussing”.

    Still, “discussão” is much lighter than “argument” is in English. So, you can say in Portuguese things such “uma discussão civilizada” and it will mean the same as “a civilized discussion” in English. To be unmistakably antagonistic, you’d have to use an expression such as “bate-boca” which would translate as “quarelling”.

  6. Argument is the football in the hands of the quarterback. Parameter is the football in the hands of the receiver.

  7. “argument” is one of the terms that’s weird to learn as a German. In German, we’re used to the “argument” of a function and a logical “argument”, but it’s weird for us to use it as a general term for a confrontational conversation. We use “Streit” for that.

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