Q&A: The origins of “plus” and “+”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're feeling plus-sized…

Q: Hi AWC, I seem to see the PLUS sign “+” everywhere these days – especially on TV streaming services or loyalty programs.

A: That’s true.

Q: I was curious about the word and the symbol… I’m guessing they’re extremely old?

A: Quite old. 

Q: Older than Ed Sheeran’s 2011 album “+”?

A: Well, yes. The word itself comes from Latin – “plus” meaning “more, in greater number, more often” – probably still found in this form in things like school mottos.

Q: I think our school motto was “CumuloNimbus Stratus”

A: Pretty sure they’re cloud formations.

Q: Well they were always telling us to aim high.

A: That’s a silver lining…

Q: So isn’t “plus” just a shorter version of “surplus”?

A: Not really. If anything, “surplus” was a longer version of “plus” – meaning “super plus” or having extra. As a noun, “surplus” did appear in English earlier, widely used from the 1300s. “Plus” wasn’t really needed at the time – the word “add” was already doing the verb duties. 

Q: So when did “plus” make its debut in English?

A: Remember, “plus” and “minus” had already been Latin words centuries earlier, but “plus” didn’t really make its comeback until after the arrival of the “+” sign in the late 1400s.

Q: Oh, I always assumed “+” had been around for thousands of years! It’s the kind of thing I’d have imagined drawn on cave walls.

A: Nah, most cave people couldn’t afford streaming services. 

Q: Tell me about the symbol then.

A: Well, as Europe started trading more, people looked for quicker ways to describe mathematical calculations. A clever German mathematician created the symbol for “plus” (and “minus”) first in 1489. By the early 1500s, this “+” symbol started getting “positive” reviews.

Q: Phew, just in time for Ed Sheeran.

A: Exactly. 500 years later and things could have been rather awkward.

Q: But why is a plus symbol shaped “+”?

A: Good question! It was chosen to represent the Latin “et cetera”, meaning “the other part”, which at the time was written “et”. So they took the t-shape and fashioned it into the + we still use today. 

Q: Didn’t the ampersand originate in a similar way?

A: Well, yes. The “&” also grew from “et”, which explains why it has a similar addition-type meaning and in modern times has sometimes become interchangeable with “+”. To bring things full circle, “et cetera” would go on to be written “&c” right up until the 20th century, when it changed to “etc”… getting its original “et” back!

Q: Fascinating! But what about the actual word “plus”?

A: Once the “+” symbol had established itself, the world needed a word for it – and finally “plus” had its comeback moment. It resurfaced in English during the 1600s, initially (much like the symbol) as a preposition – allowing people to show an increase in something.

Q: Like “four plus two”?

A: Exactly like that. If you had four chickens and bought two more at the market, you’d bring home six chickens. Four plus two.

Q: Cluck yeah!

A: It’s a poultry amount…

Q: Haha. 

A: By the way, it was a Welshman named Robert Recorde who not only introduced the + and – symbols to Britain, but he also invented the “=” symbol after getting sick of writing “is equal to” over and over again!

Q: Like a broken Recorde…

A: Cute. Anyway, introducing symbols like this sped up mathematical advances. What once took many sentences to describe could now be standardised with just a few symbols.

Q: Yes it must have been a real plus!

A: Aha! The use of “plus” to mean “advantage”, as you just used it, was first recorded in 1791.

Q: So what were some other milestones in the “plus” journey?

A: It wasn’t until 1902 that we see the word (and symbol) used to indicate more of something, for example “10+ barrels” or “people aged 18 plus”. This made sense though, as it hailed back to its original Latin meaning of “more, in greater number”.

Q: So, we know that “&” became similar to “and”… but when did “plus” also get this job?

A: A lot more recently. Only since the 1950s has it been recorded as a conjunction similar to “and”. For example, “the house has two bedrooms plus a study”.

Q: I’m sure you could convert it into a third if you had guests…

A: Not important.

Q: Right, sorry. So, what about the current trend of adding “+” to the end of every streaming service?

A: Well, it makes sense – using it both as a preposition/conjunction (we have this + that + a bit of this) and also using the 1902 superlative of “more or in greater number”. So, marketers swoon at it because one small word (and even smaller symbol) can communicate both quantity and quality in one hit.

Q: I guess it is quite a clever little combo. I just have one more question.

A: Sorry. For extra content, you’ll need to sign up to our new Q&A+ service…

Q: Seriously?

A: It’s okay, we’ll give you a free trial.

Q: Thanks! Why do hospitals and medical places use a “+” symbol? Is this related to anything we’ve talked about today?

A: Good question! But no, it’s not really about it being a plus, but a “cross”. It all goes back to 1863 and a Swiss humanitarian named Henry Dunant, who founded the Red Cross – the symbol was the reverse of the Swiss flag. This organisation provided voluntary medical services and became so synonymous that hospitals etc would eventually adopt the same symbol. Muslim countries use a red crescent.

Q: Wow! I didn’t realise it was so recent. That was some great extra content, I’m glad I subscribed!

A: Membership has its benefits…

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