MathOverflow is a question and answer site for professional mathematicians. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

The popular MO question "Famous mathematical quotes" has turned up many examples of witty, insightful, and humorous writing by mathematicians. Yet, with a few exceptions such as Weyl's "angel of topology," the language used in these quotes gets the message across without fancy metaphors or what-have-you. That's probably the style of most mathematicians.

Occasionally, however, one is surprised by unexpectedly colorful language in a mathematics paper. If I remember correctly, a paper of Gerald Sacks once described a distinction as being

as sharp as the edge of a pastrami slicer in a New York delicatessen.

Another nice one, due to Wilfred Hodges, came up on MO here.

The reader may well feel he could have bought Corollary 10 cheaper in another bazaar.

What other examples of colorful language in mathematical papers have you enjoyed?

share|cite|improve this question

closed as off topic by Loop Space, Felipe Voloch, Kevin Buzzard, Mark Sapir, quid Dec 25 '11 at 19:17

Questions on MathOverflow are expected to relate to research level mathematics within the scope defined by the community. Consider editing the question or leaving comments for improvement if you believe the question can be reworded to fit within the scope. Read more about reopening questions here.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Latest paper, my co-author put in "but we will choose a more painful way, because there is nothing like pain for feeling alive" but the referee jumped on it. – Will Jagy Apr 23 '10 at 5:09
Maybe I should expand the question to include colorful language cut from serious mathematics papers :) – John Stillwell Apr 23 '10 at 5:18
By the way, your remark reminds me of another in a similar spirit that made it into the Princeton Companion. In his article on algebraic geometry, János Kollár says of stacks: "Their study is strongly recommended to people who would have been flagellants in earlier times." – John Stillwell Apr 23 '10 at 7:49
I was actually rather surprised recently by a referee who did not know the phrase “red herring”, and had to look it up. He insisted that we change it to something more understandable. It makes me wonder how much “colourful” language is weeded out by referees, and whether the mathematical literature is poorer for it. – Harald Hanche-Olsen Apr 24 '10 at 2:31
@Harald: If you intend your mathematical papers to be read by a wide range of readers, then write them in simple language, suitable for those who are relative beginners in English. I remember reading long ago some metaphoric phrase in a mathematics research paper, then imagining students all over the world getting out their English dictionaries, looking it up, and still not understanding what it meant. (I no longer remember what the phrase was, just this reaction to it.) – Gerald Edgar Apr 24 '10 at 15:43

109 Answers 109

Diaconis and Efron wrote a paper "Testing for Independence in a Two-Way Table: New Interpretations of the Chi-Square Statistic" that was followed by 10 papers discussing their suggestion. The following is from Diaconis and Efron's rejoiner:

alt text

The critical paper that they refer to starts with a speldid colorful language:

alt text

Update: This is an additional answer too good to be missed. textareaalt text

share|cite|improve this answer

"quantization commutes with seduction"

Was it a typo? Or was it intentional?

share|cite|improve this answer
I can't say whether this is more than Freudian typo, but I know of another Freudian typo that nearly got into print. When Springer was preparing the 2nd edition of my book on topology and combinatorial group theory they sent me (in all seriousness) a copy of the intended new cover with the title Classical Topology and Combinatorial Group Therapy. – John Stillwell Apr 30 '10 at 21:26
Seeing that it is in quotes, I bet it is an intentional pun on s_ymplectic r_eduction. – Willie Wong May 3 '10 at 9:37

Masaaki Yoshida's book "Hypergeometric Functions, My Love" is packed with many colorful passages. For example, opening at random I find:

"(Do you think I should write $R^{(A)}_b =P^{-1}R^{(H)}_a P$? The notation would smother you!)"

But I think my favorite is:

"I believe that developments of mathematics are made by generalizations followed by specializations. You should jump and fly like an eagle and then fly down toward a game. To establish a story of modular interpretation of $X(3,6)$ we must jump at least as a grasshopper."

share|cite|improve this answer

I once had to make the point that the theory of spectra-with-group-action which I was using was much simpler, more naive, than the sort of beautiful and elaborate equivariant stable homotopy created by Peter May and his school. In the preprint I described the latter as the "Chicago, or deep-dish" theory. I took those words out of the final version, thinking of international readers who might not get the pizza reference. (I substituted some other humorously intended words which were a gentle dig at Peter.)

share|cite|improve this answer
You should have added a footnote with an explanation! – Mariano Suárez-Alvarez Oct 21 '10 at 14:37

In a paper of F.A.Muller — Sets, Classes and Categories — Solomon Feferman is cited:

I realise that workers in category-theory are so at home in their subject that they find it more natural to think in category-theoretic rather than set-theoretical terms, but I would liken this to not needing to hear once one has learned to compose music.

Colin McLarty in Learning from Questions on Categorical Foundations does mention this, too.

[Feferman 1977] S., 'Categorical Foundations and Foundations of Category Theory', in Logic, Foundations fo Mathematics and Computability Theory, R.E. Butts & J. Hintikka (eds.), Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1977; pp.149-169

share|cite|improve this answer
I confess to such an 'ailment'. But a lot of my work is internal to categories other than Set, so I have no choice, really... – David Roberts Aug 28 '11 at 22:39
@David: Please don't feel offended, it's about colorful language, not about category theory. – Hans Stricker Aug 28 '11 at 23:07
Still, Feferman is quite mistaken, I believe. Categorists, like other mathematicians, won't hesitate to think in set-theoretic terms if that is what works best in a given situation. – Todd Trimble Dec 13 '11 at 6:41

From Jim Stasheff's Homotopy Associativity of H-spaces I, the magisterial-sounding

To study spaces which admit $A_n$-structures, we can work directly with the maps…. In the case of a topological group, this amounts to working only with the classifying bundle and never mentioning group operations. This would be an exercise in rectitude of thought of which it would be pointless to countenance the austerity, for not only would it eliminate a useful perspective on the subject, but, by disguising its own main point, it would place the reader beneath a cloud of unknowing.

Note 1: this is partly a subtle dig at Claude Chevalley's Fundamental Concepts of Algebra, whose preface ends, "Secondly, that one of the important pedagogical problems which a teacher of beginners in mathematics has to solve is to impart to his students the technique of rigorous mathematical reasoning; this is an exercise in rectitude of thought, of which it would be futile to disguise the austerity."

Note 2: Stasheff is exhibiting his awareness of religious literature (The Cloud of Unknowing is a 14th century work of Christian mysticism, written in Middle English).

share|cite|improve this answer

Number theorist Andrew Granville wrote a paper called "Prime number races" in which he studies the "race" between prime numbers $\equiv$ 1 (mod 4) and prime numbers $\equiv$ 3 (mod 4). The introduction is most certainly a colorful one:

There’s nothing quite like a day at the races...The quickening of the pulse as the starter’s pistol sounds, the thrill when your favorite contestant speeds out into the lead (or the distress if another contestant dashes out ahead of yours), and the accompanying fear (or hope) that the leader might change. And what if the race is a marathon? Maybe one of the contestants will be far stronger than the others, taking the lead and running at the head of the pack for the whole race. Or perhaps the race will be more dramatic, with the lead changing again and again for as long as one cares to watch. Our race involves the odd prime numbers, separated into two teams depending on the remainder when they are divided by 4:

share|cite|improve this answer
See also Granville's "Zaphod Beeblebrox's Brain and the Fifty-ninth Row of Pascal's Triangle" ( – Michael Lugo Feb 3 '11 at 19:42

I've always marveled that the abbreviated terminology for "thickenings of the corresponding special Lagrangian" on the bottom of page 26 of this paper of Richard Thomas made it into print:

share|cite|improve this answer
I had to look up the U.K. slang usage. I knew of only "partially vitreous by-product of smelting ore" as in the wikipedia page. – Will Jagy Apr 23 '10 at 19:52
That's an example of colourful language, not colorful language :) – François G. Dorais Apr 23 '10 at 19:55
He was inspired by the following famous UK comic: ( I saw him give a talk on the subject once. When the phrase came up all the English people in the audience laughed and everyone else looked around with very confused expressions on their faces. – Joel Fine Apr 24 '10 at 8:14
This is more colloquial than you think! The Fat Slags are a pair of well-known cartoon characters from Viz magazine. Given that he's a Brit, it's surely a reference to them. – Kevin Buzzard Apr 24 '10 at 8:20

More Weyl, all Mancosu's translation, all in his fierce days advocating Brouwer's mathematics:

Weyl (1921) On the New Foundational Crisis of Mathematics,

It must have the effect of a deliverance from a nightmare for whoever has maintained any sense for intuitively given facts in the abstract formalism of mathematics.

Weyl (1925) The current epistemological situation in mathematics:

At set theory's outermost borders, blurred in fog, crevices (i.e., flagrant contradictions) soon appeared.

and ibid, of the intuitionistic conception of the continuum:

The ice cover was burst into floes, and now the element of flux was soon altogether master over the solid.

Though these were published in mathematical journals, they are maybe not what the question was after, since they are not part of normal mathematical exposition.

share|cite|improve this answer

Math Reviews used to be much more colorful. In the 1950s, Haefliger was working on groupoids, developing a lot of what is now fundamental in the theory of stacks. Palais reviewed a 1958 paper of Haefliger's, concluding with,

The first four chapters of the paper are concerned with an extreme, Bourbaki-like generalization of the notion of foliation. After some twenty-five pages and several hundred preliminary definitions, the reader finds that a foliation of $X$ is to be an element of the zeroth cohomology space of $X$ with coefficients in a certain sheaf of groupoids. Holonomy, the Reeb-Ehresmann stability theorems, etc., are then generalized to this setting. While such generalization has its place and may in fact prove useful in the future, it seems unfortunate to the reviewer that the author has so materially reduced the accessibility of the results, mentioned above, of Chapter V, by couching them in a ponderous formalism that will undoubtedly discourage many otherwise interested readers.

share|cite|improve this answer
I don't think I'd consider this language colorful so much as grumpy and annoyed. I'm mildly curious whether Palais would feel at all differently today. – Todd Trimble Dec 16 '12 at 13:57

I came across this little gem when preparing for a talk on Kakeya sets and the ball multiplier problem, found on page 437 of E. Stein's Harmonic analysis: real-variable methods, orthogonality, and oscillatory integrals:

We will use this process to generate our monster, which will have a tiny heart and many arms.

share|cite|improve this answer

R.Coleman writing about the Dwork Principle in Section III of "Dilogarithms, Regulators and $p$-adic $L$-functions":

"Rigid analysis was created to provide some coherence in an otherwise totally disconnected $p$-adic realm. Still, it is often left to Frobenius to quell the rebellious outer provinces".

share|cite|improve this answer

The following is taken from The paper "Rational points near curves and small nonzero $|x^3-y^2|$ via lattice" by Noam Elkies It was discussed in a previous MO question.

Citing the Simpsons is rather surprising and I wonder what is the story behind it.

alt text

share|cite|improve this answer
According to "The writers also use the newsgroup to test how observant the fans are. In the seventh season episode "Treehouse of Horror VI", the writer of segment Homer3, David S. Cohen, deliberately inserted a false equation into the background of one scene. The equation that appears is $1782^{12} + 1841^{12} = 1922^{12}$." – Gerry Myerson Apr 7 '11 at 7:25

This is perhaps more of a silly play on words than colourful, but I still got a laugh out of it. One page 58 of Conway's 'The sensual (quadratic) form' while discussing Kneser's gluing method a sentence begins:

To further illuminate the utility of glue, ...

share|cite|improve this answer
I have the book but I don't get the pun, and I feel the lesser for it. Could you please explain it, if not in comments or answers here then, say, in your MO "profile" autobiography field or in email to me? – Will Jagy Apr 24 '10 at 4:08
It's likely that I have a very dry sense of humour. But, if Conway was being formal he would write "To further illuminate the utility of the gluing method,..". I can't help but feel that it is written the way it is quite deliberately. – Robby McKilliam Apr 24 '10 at 21:48
I think I see, and I agree that it was deliberate. I was looking for song titles that rhymed, as "Cupidity Fondue," "Venality of You," "Morality Imbue." – Will Jagy Apr 24 '10 at 22:50

Fulton and Harris's "Representation Theory" has a few examples of colourful language. Two of my favorites:

In recent work their* Lie-theoretic origins have been exploited to produce their representations, but to tell their story would go far beyond the scope of these lecture(r)s.

*: The finite Chevalley groups.

Any mathematician, stranded on a desert island with only these ideas and the definition of a particular Lie algebra $\mathfrak{g}$ such as $\mathfrak{sl}_n \mathbb{C}$, $\mathfrak{so}_n \mathbb{C}$, or $\mathfrak{sp}_n \mathbb{C}$, would in short order have a complete description of all the objects defined above in the case of $\mathfrak{g}$. We should say as well, however, that at the conclusion of this procedure we are left without one vital piece of information about the representations of $\mathfrak{g}$ ... this is, of course, a description of the multiplicities of the basic representations $\Gamma_a$. As we said, we will, in fact, describe and prove such a formula (the Weyl character formula); but it is of a much les straightforward character (our hypothetical shipwrecked mathematician would have to have what could only be described as a pretty good day to come up the idea) and will be left until later.

share|cite|improve this answer

I like the following from the Introduction of Iwaniec-Kowalski: Analytic number theory (AMS, 2004):

Poisson summation for number theory is what a car is for people in modern communities – it transports things to other places and it takes you back home when applied next time – one cannot live without it.

This is not the only good one in that introduction, I let you find the others!

share|cite|improve this answer

In Jacquet and Langlands' "Automorphic forms on GL(2)", page 154, they discuss a construction which uses some choices of intermediate objects -- of course the question whether the final result depends on those choices comes up ; here is how they treat it :

We prefer to pretend that the difficulty does not exist. As a matter of fact for anyone lucky enough not to have been indoctrinated in the functorial point of view it doesn’t.

That made me chuckle.

share|cite|improve this answer
Yeah, heh. Good one. – Todd Trimble Dec 16 '12 at 15:19

Two from Casselman's "A companion to Macdonald's book on p-adic spherical functions":

The word ‘´epingler’ means ‘to pin’, and the image that comes to mind most appropriately is that of a mounted butterfly specimen. [Kottwitz:1984] uses ‘splitting’ for what most call ‘´epinglage’, but this is not compatible with the common use of ‘deploiement’, the usual French term for ‘splitting’.) Ian Macdonald, among others, has suggested that retaining the French word ´epinglage in these notes is a mistake, and that it should be replaced by the usual translation ‘pinning.’ This criticism is quite reasonable, but I rejected it as leading to noncolloquial English. The words ‘pinning’ as noun and ‘pinned’ as adjective are commonly used only to refer to an item of clothing worn by infants, and it just didn’t sound right.


These phenomena are part of what Langlands calls endoscopy, a word that might be roughly justified by saying that endoscopy is concerned with some fine aspects of the structure of harmonic analysis on a reductive p-adic group. Langlands attributes the term to Avner Ash, praising his classical knowledge, but I was pleased to find recently the following quotation that shows a more vulgar intrusion of endoscopy into the modern world:

Jeeves: “ . . . I had no need of the endoscope.”

Bertie: “The what?”

Jeeves: “Endoscope, sir. An instrument which enables one to peer into the . . . interior and discern the core.”

From Chapter 12 of Jeeves and the feudal spirit by P. G. Wodehouse.

This discussion is about distingishing fae jewlry from real. Since the endoscope also has medical uses, one could imagine an even more vulgar usage.

He has modified the notes several times so these might not be there anymore, but I have the older copies =)

share|cite|improve this answer
I sent a bunch of information on James Arthur and endoscopy to a high-school classmate who is a gastroenterologist. As near as I can tell he never got any amusement out of it. I also sent him a copy of the book "Communion" by Whitley Streiber, which seems to be the source of the idea that aliens visiting from distant galaxies like to, well, examine us. Same outcome. – Will Jagy Apr 24 '10 at 1:58
My girlfriend is a surgeon and once a month our copy of "Endoscopy" drops through the post box. I tried to out-do her recently by sitting on the sofa reading a paper of Waldspurger about "twisted endoscopy" and she suggested he was doing it wrong. – Kevin Buzzard Apr 24 '10 at 8:22
You made the effort, that's what counts in the end. – Will Jagy Apr 24 '10 at 19:05
This is off-topic, but the remarks about "epinglage" versus "pinning" reminded me: has anyone followed the grumbly remarks in Lang's Algebra and tried to use the terminology of "(co)eraseable resolutions" in homological algebra? – Yemon Choi Apr 25 '10 at 1:21

Here is a colorful rejoinder by D. Zagier (in his reprinted article on the dilogarithm) to colorful language by Ph. Elbaz-Vincent and H. Gangl:

[Ph. Elbaz-Vincent and H. Gangl] called these functions "polyanalogs," an amalgam of the words "analogue," "polylog," and "pollyanna" (an American term suggesting exaggerated or unwarranted optimism). Presumably the correct term for the case $m=2$ would then be "dianalog," which has a pleasing British flavo(u)r.

share|cite|improve this answer

There is the following apochryphal dedication of a doctoral thesis:

"I am deeply grateful to Professor X, whose wrong conjectures and fallacious proofs led me to the theorems he had overlooked."

In fact this is a description of excellent supervision, in giving confidence to a student!

share|cite|improve this answer
At the risk of taking too literally something meant in jest -- it strikes me as a vision of shoddy supervision. That's like saying every incompetent line manager deserves credit for inspiring those under them to ignore, or compensate for, their own failings – Yemon Choi Dec 18 '11 at 20:04
@Yemon: It is told of Pontrjagin that his students gradually realised he had already solved the suggested problem , and this was very offputting. The image of "line manager" is false. A supervisor can suggest a good area in which the student might make some progress, and also to show by example how to cope with failure. "In research, the secret of success is the successful management of failure!" Also, one key question is after failure:"Why did I think this might be a good idea?" Others are: "What are the fall back positions? What are the fall forward positions?" How to manage risk? – Ronnie Brown Nov 4 '12 at 11:00

Edward Nelson, Predicative Arithmetic, p. 50:

The intuition that the set of all subsets of a finite set is finite -- or more generally, that if $A$ and $B$ are finite sets, then so is the set $B^A$ of all functions from $A$ to $B$ -- is a questionable intuition. Let $A$ be the set of some $5000$ spaces for symbols on a blank sheet of typewriter paper, and let $B$ be the set of some $80$ symbols of a typewriter; then perhaps $B^A$ is infinite. Perhaps it is even incorrect to think of $B^A$ as being a set. To do so is to postulate an entity, the set of all possible typewritten pages, and then to ascribe some kind of reality to this entity -- for example, by asserting that one can in principle survey each possible typewritten page. But perhaps it simply is not so. Perhaps there is no such number as $80^{5000}$; perhaps it is always possible to write a new and different page. Many ordinary activities are built up in a similar way from a rather small set of symbols or actions. Perhaps infinity is not far off in space or time or thought; perhaps it is while engaged in an ordinary activity -- writing a page, getting a child ready for school, talking with someone, teaching a class, making love -- that we are immersed in infinity.

share|cite|improve this answer
Having just noticed this, I am rather disturbed by the thought that out there, somewhere, someone is looking into another person's eyes and asking "do you want to immerse yourself in infinity?" – Yemon Choi Jun 14 '11 at 21:40
Or even using it as a line in a bar, heaven forfend... – Yemon Choi Jun 14 '11 at 21:41

"Now life is too short to work over the integers all of the time, ..."

J. Morava, On the complex cobordism ring as a Fock representation.

share|cite|improve this answer

According to the book "King of Infinite Space" Coxeter, "tickled his readers with unexpected turns of phrase such as":

... dividing the product of the first three expressions by the product of the last two, and indulging in a veritable orgy of cancellation, we obtain ...

share|cite|improve this answer
I recognize that quote! It's from a proof of Pappus's theorem. IIRC, it's from his "Geometry Revisited." – Harry Altman Aug 23 '11 at 2:09

I am rather fond of Sylvester's "Aspiring to these wide generalizations, the analysis of quadratic functions soars to a pitch from whence it may look proudly down on the feeble and vain attempts of geometry proper to rise to its level or to emulate it in its flights." (1850)

share|cite|improve this answer

From page 329 of Carothers' Real Analysis textbook, where uses Fatou's lemma to prove Lebesgue's dominated convergence theorem: "Now we unleash Fatou!"

share|cite|improve this answer

Although the article itself is standard, I've always been fond of the title (and contents) of the Burstall & Hertrich-Jeromin paper Harmonic maps in unfashionable geometries.

share|cite|improve this answer

In the huge and austere book "Groupes algébriques" by M. Demazure and P. Gabriel we find in the last pages a "Dictionaire "Fonctoriel"", a dictionary of terms related to category theory where they have:

Satellite- Voir Cartan-Eilenberg et non Paris-Match.

share|cite|improve this answer

André Weil uses some very colourful language in the introduction of his 1946 book Foundations of Algebraic Geometry. I recommend any mathematician to read it. Here are some excerpts:

"As in other kinds of war, so in this bloodless battle with an ever retreating foe which it is our good luck to be waging, it is possible for the advancing army to outrun its services of supply and incur disaster unless it waits for the quartermaster to perform his inglorious but indispensable task."

"Of course every mathematician has a right to his own language---at the risk of not being understood; and the use sometimes made of this right by our contemporaries almost suggests that the same fate is being prepared for mathematics as once befell, at Babel, another of man's great achievements."

"... however grateful we algebraic geometers should be to the modern algebraic school for lending us temporary accommodation, makeshift constructions full of rings, ideals and valuations, in which some of us feel in constant danger of getting lost, our wish and aim must be to return at the earliest possible moment to the palaces which are ours by birthright, to consolidate shaky foundations, to provide roofs where they are missing, to finish, in harmony with the portions already existing, what has been left undone."

" is hoped that these may be helpful to the reader, to whom the author, having acted as his pilot until this point, heartily wishes Godspeed on his sailing away from the axiomatic shore, further and further into open sea."

share|cite|improve this answer
Weil could be exceedingly florid in his language at times. Almost like reading Proust. – Todd Trimble Dec 16 '12 at 15:25

In "Théorie algébrique des nombres" (in french and a great book about Dedekind rings and basic number field theory btw), Samuel frequently uses "Mézalor" as a phonetic replacemecont for "Mais alors". I guess you could translate it as "Butzen" instead of "But then". I think it was just a geeky "wink wink" at other mathematicians considering how much that locution was used in "dévissage" but I liked it anyway.

share|cite|improve this answer

protected by François G. Dorais Oct 15 '13 at 2:42

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

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