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The Tibetan astronomer Pelgön Thrinle (second half of the 15th century – first half of the 16th century) depicted on a 1685 block print using an abacus consisting of a tray scattered with sand (sense 1)
A 1503 woodcut[n 1] showing a person (right) using an abacus consisting of counters placed on a table (sense 2)
A model of a Roman abacus (sense 2) with counters mounted in grooves
A Chinese-style abacus (sense 2) with beads sliding on rods
An abacus (sense 3; numbered 1 above) is the uppermost portion of the capital of a column immediately under the architrave
A drawing of a small abacus (sense 4) or trapezophoron with three marble legs ornamented with lions, which was found in the house of the “Little Mosaic-Fountain” in Pompeii, Italy[n 2]

From Late Middle English abacus, abagus, agabus (abacus; art of counting with an abacus),[1] from Latin abacus, abax (sideboard or table with a slab at the top; slab at the top of a column; counting board, sand table; board for playing games) (compare Late Latin abacus (art of arithmetic)), from Ancient Greek ἄβαξ (ábax, counting board; board covered with sand for drawing; plate; dice-board),[2] possibly from a Semitic source; compare Hebrew אבק(āvāq, dust) and Phoenician -𐤀‬𐤁𐤀‬𐤒(-ʾ‬bʾ‬q). The English word is cognate with Catalan àbac (counting board; mathematical table; board covered with sand for drawing; checkerboard or chessboard; table), Old French abac, Middle French abaque (French abaque (counting board; art of arithmetic; slab at the top of a column)), Italian abaco (counting board; multiplication table; art of counting; type of table; slab at the top of a column), Portuguese abaco, Spanish abaco.[2] Doublet of abaque.

The plural form abaci is from Latin abacī.



abacus (plural abaci or abacuses)

  1. (historical, obsolete) A table or tray scattered with sand which was used for calculating or drawing. [attested from c. 1387]
    • [a. 1387, Ranulphi Higden [i.e., Ranulf Higden], chapter X, in John Trevisa, transl.; Joseph Rawson Lumby, editor, Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden Monachi Cestrensis; together with the English Translations of John Trevisa and of an Unknown Writer of the Fifteenth Century. [] (Rerum Britannicarum Medii Aevi Scriptores, or Chronicles and Memorials of Great Britain and Ireland during the Middle Ages), volume VII (in Middle English), London: Longman & Co., []; Trübner & Co., [], published 1879, OCLC 271081999, book VI, page 69:
      He [Gerebertus] was þe firste þat took abacus of Sarsyns, and ȝaf rules þerynne, þat mowe unneþe be understonde of þe kunnyngeste men of þe craft, þe whiche craftes men beþ cleped abaciste. Marianus. Abacus is a table wiþ þhe whiche schappes be portrayed and i-peynt in powdre, and abacus is a craft of geometrie.
      He [Gerebertus] was the first who took the abacus of the Saracens and gave rules for it, which can be barely understood by the most learned men of the craft, whose craftsmen are called abacists. Marianus. The abacus is a table with which shapes are portrayed and painted in powder, and abacus is [also] a branch of geometry.]
    • 1825, “a modern Greek” [pseudonym; Robert Mudie], “Education of the Athens”, in The Modern Athens: A Dissection and Demonstration of Men and Things in the Scotch Capital, 2nd edition, London: Printed for Knight and Lacey, [], OCLC 12954342, page 269:
      [H]e set fondly and furiously to work upon [Thomas] Simpson's Euclid, [...] The smooth grassy sod answered all the purposes of the abacus, and the cows generously supplied him in a substitute for sand. Spreading and smoothing that substitute with his bear foot, he engraved upon it with his finger the mystic lines and letters; and, with book in hand, proceeded to establish the elementary principles of geometry, [...]
  2. A device used for performing arithmetical calculations; (rare) a table on which loose counters are placed, or (more commonly) an instrument with beads sliding on rods, or counters in grooves, with one row of beads or counters representing units, the next tens, etc. [from late 17th c.]
    I’ve heard merchants still use an abacus for adding things up in China.
    • 1888, Walter W[illiam] Rouse Ball, “Egyptian and Phœnecian Mathematics”, in A Short Account of the History of Mathematics, London; New York, N.Y.: Macmillan and Co., OCLC 1125887121, page 6:
      Before leaving the question of early arithmetic I should mention that for practical purposes the almost universal use of the abacus or swan-pan rendered it easy to add or subtract, or even to multiply and divide, without any knowledge of theoretical mathematics. [...] [I]t will be sufficient here to say that they afford a concrete way of representing a number in the decimal scale, and enable the results of addition and subtraction to be obtained by a merely mechanical process.
    • 1974, Theodore R[yland] Sizer, “Foreword”, in Allan B. Ellis, The Use & Misuse of Computers in Education, New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, →ISBN, page ix:
      The computer is but another vehicle to employ in helping people learn, a cousin of books, films, blackboards, chalk, gerbils, abacuses. Like each of these devices, it can be well used or misused.
    • 1999, Stan Gibilisco; Norman Crowhurst, “From Counting to Addition”, in Mastering Technical Mathematics, 2nd edition, New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill, →ISBN, part 1 (Arithmetic as an Outgrowth of Learning to Count), page 10:
      Take another look at the abacus to see how useful it is. Each row represents a successively higher counting group, or register, by 10 times. Thus, with only 6 rows you can count to one million (actually, up to 999,999, which is 1 short of one million).
    • 2001, Augusto Boal, “The Impossible Return and the Strangeness of the Familiar”, in Adrian Jackson and Candida Blaker, transl., Hamlet and the Baker’s Son: My Life in Theatre and Politics, London; New York, N.Y.: Routledge, →ISBN, page 342:
      Before Pythagoras it was necessary to see the thing before counting it, like children who learn on abacuses, with balls sliding along rods: children learn to add and subtract by sliding stones.
    • 2004, Patricia J. Murphy, “The Bottom Deck”, in Counting with an Abacus: Learning the Place Values of Ones, Tens, and Hundreds, New York, N.Y.: The Rosen Publishing Group, →ISBN, page 8:
      Each rod in the bottom deck of an abacus has 5 beads. The value of each bead depends on which rod it is on. Each bead on the ones rod in the bottom deck equals 1. Each bead on the tens rod in the bottom deck equals 10. Each bead on the hundreds rod in the bottom deck equals 100.
    • 2007, Valerie Anand, “Hope and Fear”, in The House of Lanyon (The Exmoor Saga), Richmond, London: Mira, published 2008, →ISBN, page 209:
      She was sitting at the parlour table with a small abacus in front of her. [...] Peter still recorded weights of fleeces and pounds of cabbages and bushels of grain by cutting notches in tally sticks, but Liza would translate them into figures on paper and have them totted up on the abacus the very same day.
  3. (architecture) The uppermost portion of the capital of a column immediately under the architrave, in some cases a flat oblong or square slab, in others more decorated. [from mid 16th c.]
    • 1795 June 11, 18, 25, William Wilkins, “XIV. An Essay towards the History of the Venta Icenorum of the Romans, and of Norwich Castle; with Remarks on the Architecture of the Anglo-Saxons and Normans. [On the Architecture of NORWICH Castle.]”, in Archaeologia: Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity, volume XII, London: Published by the Society of Antiquaries of London; printed by J[ohn] Nichols, printer to the Society; [], published 1796, OCLC 220073875, page 160:
      The only mouldings uſed, both by the Saxon and Norman architects, were the torus, the ſcotia or reverſed torus, the cavetto or hollow moulding, and a kind of chamfered faſcia, which latter was generally uſed for impoſts or abacuſes to their capitals.
    • 1829 June, “Cathedrals of Salisbury and Amiens Compared, by the Late Rev. G. D. Whittington, in the Sixth Chapter of His ‘Survey of the Ecclesiastical Antiquities of France.’ 1811.”, in The Crypt, or Receptacle for Things Past, and West of England Magazine, volume I, part I, number VI (New Series), Winchester, Hampshire: Published by Charles Henry Wheeler, [], OCLC 4681193, page 245:
      At Amiens, the square form of the abaci, and the volutes of the capitals, afford a decisive proof that the Norman fashion had not yet been superseded. On the other hand, at Salisbury, the abaci are mostly round, and where foliage is used in the capitals, their graceful and luxurious design clearly shews an advancement in that department of the art.
    • 1851, John Ruskin, “The Capital”, in The Stones of Venice, volume I (The Foundations), London: Smith, Elder, and Co., [], OCLC 20600199, § III, pages 102–103:
      The stones of the cornice, hitherto called X and Y, receive, now that they form the capital, each a separate name; the sloping stone is called the Bell of the capital, and that laid above it, the Abacus. Abacus means a board or tile: I wish there were an English word for it, but I fear there is no substitution possible, the term having been long fixed, and the reader will find it convenient to familiarise himself with the Latin one.
    • 1942, Theodore Fyfe, Architecture in Cambridge: Examples of English Architectural Styles from Saxon to Modern Times, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: At the University Press, OCLC 41748228, page 49:
      The shafts carry the usual cubical capitals—surmounted by plain heavy impost stones in place of moulded abaci—the one on the right being the better preserved.
    • 1989, Eleni Vassilika, “The Work Methods of the Artisan at Philae”, in Ptolemaic Philae (Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta; 34), Leuven, Belgium: Departement Oriëntalistiek, Uitgeverij Peeters, →ISBN, pages 187–188:
      The Hathor abaci above the Mammisi capitals were only decorated on the east flank. Perhaps the decoration of the abacus was not regarded as important as the capital and although it is above the capital, its decoration was executed only when time constraints did not prevail.
    • 2005, Robert Chitham, “Plates 20 and 21: The Ionic Capital I and II”, in The Classical Orders of Architecture, 2nd edition, Oxford, Oxfordshire; Burlington, Mass.: Architectural Press, Elsevier, →ISBN, page 76:
      The abacus is moulded in three sections and has four main concave faces corresponding with the tapering volutes below and truncated by a short square face on the diagonal.
  4. (Ancient Greece, Ancient Rome, historical) A board, tray, or table, divided into perforated compartments for holding bottles, cups, or the like; a kind of buffet, cupboard, or sideboard. [from late 18th c.]
    • 1817, “ABACUS”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica: Or, A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature, volume I, 5th enlarged and improved edition, Edinburgh: Printed at the Encyclopædia Press, for Archibald Constable and Company, []; London: Gale and Fenner; York, Yorkshire: Thomas Wilson and Sons, OCLC 29809783, page 4, column 1:
      ABACUS, among the ancients, was a kind of cupboard or buffet. Livy, deſcribing the luxury into which the Romans degenerated after the conqueſt of Aſia, ſays they had their abaci, beds, &c. plated over with gold.
    • 1875, E[rnst Karl] Guhl; W[ilhelm David] Koner, “The Romans”, in F[rancis] Hueffer, transl., The Life of the Greeks and Romans, Described from Antique Monuments: Translated from the Third German Edition, London: Chapman and Hall, [], OCLC 79000433, § 89 (Tables.—Tripods), pages 446–447:
      The plate and nicknacks, always found in elegant Roman houses, were displayed on small one or three legged tables (trapezophoron), the slabs of which (abacus, a word which, like trapezophoron, is sometimes used for the whole table) had raised edges round them: several richly ornamented specimens of such tables have been found at Pompeii. Fig. 446 shows a small abacus resting on three marble legs, which has been found in the house of the "Little Mosaic-Fountain" at Pompeii.


Related terms[edit]


The translations below need to be checked and inserted above into the appropriate translation tables, removing any numbers. Numbers do not necessarily match those in definitions. See instructions at Wiktionary:Entry layout § Translations.


  1. ^ From Gregor Reisch (1503) Margarita Philosophica: Totius Philosophiae Rationalis, Naturalis & Moralis Principia Dialogice Duodecim Libris Complectens, Freiburg im Breisgau: [Per] Ioanne[m] Schottu[m] [], OCLC 990556149, from the collection of the Houghton Library of Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA (Typ 520.03.736).
  2. ^ From E[rnst Karl] Guhl; W[ilhelm David] Koner (1875) , “The Romans”, in F[rancis] Hueffer, transl., The Life of the Greeks and Romans, Described from Antique Monuments: Translated from the Third German Edition, London: Chapman and Hall, [], OCLC 79000433, § 89 (Tables.—Tripods), figure 446, page 446.


  1. ^ abacus, n.” in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  2. 2.0 2.1 abacus, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford: Oxford University Press, December 2011; “abacus, n.” in Lexico, Dictionary.com; Oxford University Press.

Further reading[edit]



Borrowed from Latin abacus, from Ancient Greek ἄβαξ (ábax).


  • IPA(key): /ˈɑ.baː.kʏs/
  • (file)
  • Hyphenation: aba‧cus


abacus m (plural abaci or abacussen, diminutive abacusje n)

  1. (arithmetic) An abacus (arithmetic calculation device, usually with beads on rods).
    Synonyms: rekentafel, telraam
  2. (architecture) An abacus (upper portion of a column's capital).


Alternative forms[edit]


From Ancient Greek ἄβαξ (ábax, board).



abacus m (genitive abacī); second declension

  1. a square board
  2. sideboard
    • 70 BCE, Cicero, In Verrem II.4.35:
      Ab hoc abaci vasa omnia, ut exposita fuerunt, abstulit.
      From this place he removed all the sideboard's dishes, since they had been exposed.
  3. counting board, abacus.
    • c. 62 CE, Persius, Saturae I.131:
      ...nec qui abaco numeros et secto in pulvere metas / scit risisse vafer, multum gaudere paratus, / si cynico barbam petulans nonaria vellat.
      ...nor the man who has the wit to laugh at the figures on the counting board and the cones drawn in sand, ready to go off in ecstasies if a prostitute pulls a Cynic by the beard.
  4. gaming board.
    • 121 CE, Suetonius, De vita Caesarum Neronis.XXII.1:
      Sed cum inter initia imperii eburneis quadrigis cotidie in abaco luderet, ad omnis etiam minimos circenses e secessu commeabat, primo clam, deinde propalam, ut nemini dubium esset eo die utique affuturum.
      But in the early stages of his rule he used to play every day on a gaming board with ivory chariots. He would also travel from his retreat to the Circus games, even the least important ones, at first in secret and then openly. As a result, no one was in any doubt that he would be present in Rome that day at least.
  5. a painted ceiling or wall panel.
    • c. 77 CE – 79 CE, Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia XXXIII.56:
      Hoc autem et Attico ad lumina utuntur, ad abacos non nisi marmoroso, quoniam marmor in eo resistit amaritudini calcis.
      This and the Attic sort they used for high lights, for panels none but the marmorean kind, because the marble in it resists acridity of the lime.
  6. a panel
  7. a tray


Second-declension noun.

Case Singular Plural
Nominative abacus abacī
Genitive abacī abacōrum
Dative abacō abacīs
Accusative abacum abacōs
Ablative abacō abacīs
Vocative abace abacī


  • Catalan: àbac
  • English: abacus
  • French: abaque
  • Galician: ábaco
  • German: Abakus
  • Irish: abacas


  • ăbăcus in Charlton T. Lewis and Charles Short (1879) A Latin Dictionary, Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • abacus in Charlton T. Lewis (1891) An Elementary Latin Dictionary, New York: Harper & Brothers
  • abacus in Charles du Fresne du Cange’s Glossarium Mediæ et Infimæ Latinitatis (augmented edition, 1883–1887)
  • abacus in Gaffiot, Félix (1934) Dictionnaire Illustré Latin-Français, Hachette
  • abacus in The Perseus Project (1999) Perseus Encyclopedia[1]
  • abacus in Harry Thurston Peck, editor (1898) Harper's Dictionary of Classical Antiquities, New York: Harper & Brothers
  • abacus in William Smith et al., editor (1890) A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, London: William Wayte. G. E. Marindin
  • Professor Kidd, et al. Collins Gem Latin Dictionary. HarperCollins Publishers (Glasgow: 2004). →ISBN. page 1.