Earliest Uses of Symbols in Probability
and Statistics
This page has largely been contributed by John Aldrich of the University of
Southampton. It was last updated on March 9, 2005.
The origins of both probability and statistics are usually traced to the 17
th
century. Over
the centuries these subjects have been in contact with each other and with other branches
of mathematics and science. The story is treated, in more or less detail, by Tankard
(1984), Stigler (1986) Hald (1986, 1998). The late 19
th
and early 20
th
century origins of
modern probability theory are treated by von Plato (1994).
For probability and statistics entries on the
Words
pages, see
here
for a list.
Contents
The entries below are organised as follows. Because of the interconnectedness of the
histories the categories overlap.
•
Combinatorial analysis
: Many of the symbols of elementary combinatorial
analysis found in modern probability and statistics books were created in the 19
th
century. In 19
th
century Britain probability was most visible in algebra textbooks
as an application of combinatorial analysis.
•
The normal distribution
, also known as the Gaussian distribution, the second
law of Laplace, the law of error .
.. , has been studied since the 18
th
century and
many people have left their tracks on the notation.
•
Probability
: At the turn of the 20
th
century there was a revival of interest in
probability in continental Europe. The central limit theorem was one of their main
concerns. The main contributors were Russian and French and they created much
of the modern terminology and notation around 1930.
•
Statistics
: None of the notation used by Laplace and Gauss and their followers
has survived into modern statistics. The oldest notation still in use comes from the
period 18901940 when the British biometrician/statisticians
Karl Pearson
and
R.
A. Fisher
introduced many of the basic symbols and many of the principles for
constructing new ones.
The languages of English statistics and continental European probability came together in
the 1940s.
Links
Many of the classic works in probability and statistics are available on the web. There are
links to several of them in the entries below. All the works linked appear on Peter M.
Lee's
Materials for the History of Statistics
site. The site contains many other links as
well. The individual with the greatest influence on present day statistical terminology and
notation remains R. A. Fisher (18901962). Many of Fisher's papers are available from
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View Full Documentthe University of Adelaide Library’s
R. A. Fisher Digital Archive
. The first edition of
Fisher's tremendously influential textbook,
Statistical Methods for Research Workers
(1925) is available on the
Classics in the History of Psychology
website at
Statistical
Methods for Research Workers
.
For a sketch of the history of probability and statistics and notes on some of the key
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 Fall '10
 Tarter
 Normal Distribution, R. A. Fisher

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