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I have heard many historians use the word denominator. I know its significance in maths but when and why is the word used in other contexts? And what are its synonyms in those contexts?

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closed as general reference by tchrist, Mark Beadles, Cameron, MετάEd, Daniel Oct 13 '12 at 18:59

This question is too basic; it can be definitively and permanently answered by a single link to a standard internet reference source designed specifically to find that type of information.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

Check out this ELU question about the use of "lowest common denominator" for additional insight. – Zairja Oct 11 '12 at 15:21

Sometimes you will see denominator used in subjects such as history when referring to "common denominators", traits which apply to the entire subject. You could also use common traits, commonalities, etc.

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While I agree that common denominator is silly, the question was related to how it was used. I think your suggestions are more effective than using common denominator. – Bob Oct 11 '12 at 15:17
Hmm, I don't see what's wrong with using a metaphor derived from mathematics. Literally, a "common denominator" is a number which is a component in the factorization of two or more other numbers. Metaphorically, a "common denominator" is something which is a component of two or more "somethings" -- the "somethings" depending on the context. It's a pretty straightforward metaphor. – Jay Oct 11 '12 at 19:09
@Jay: I'll admit my maths isn't exactly top-flight, but it's UK "A" level (what you study up to 18-19, before you go on to university). I can't for the life of me see how "reflects the lowest common denominator" is supposed to work as a metaphor. Like tchrist, I suspect what people usually mean is greatest common factor, but they don't want to say that because they're usually pontificating about how low that metaphorical GCF actually is. – FumbleFingers Oct 12 '12 at 0:02
... Mathematicians do talk about the "Least Common Multiple", which is the smallest number that two specified numbers divide into. Like the LCM of 12 and 18 is 36. But, yes, I've heard people say things like, "Television routinely appeals to the lowest common denominator", which is a mangled metaphor. I agree that that is silly. But to say, e.g., "The English language is the common denominator for Britain and America" is a rational use of the metaphor: this is something we both share. – Jay Oct 12 '12 at 14:14
@tchrist Ah, I'll retract part of my post. I just did a search on LCD and I see the usage you are describing. I don't know if this is a UK vs US or then vs now issue, but when I was in school what you are calling a "greatest common factor" I was taught as "greatest common denominator". So okay, there's a definition of "least common denominator" the least common multiple of the denominators of two fractions, not at all the opposite of what I was taught as a greatest common denominator. – Jay Oct 12 '12 at 14:21

Outside of the mathematical it means something that is held in common, a shared trait.

When used it is often preceded by the word common, as in:

The one common denominator in all tragedies is the downward movement of the plot from positive experience to catastrophe.ref.

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@tchrist No argument – Ed Guiness Oct 11 '12 at 15:14

A denominator of the current answers (mine included) are all attempts to help OP.

Denominator definition (non-mathematical):


A common trait or characteristic.

An average level or standard

An example of the first definition can be found in the first sentence.

An example of the second definition can be found in the definition link.

Denominator's definitions mean that if you have many things with a common trait or characteristic then you'd say something along the lines of (but not limited to) "X is the denominator of y".

Denominator's etymology strings to 'denomination', a noun, meaning : "a naming, act of giving a name to"

When you find a denominator between "items" (implied common traits between anything) you are giving that denominator a "name", being whatever it is that is found to be in common.

Just thought of a semi-okay example:

Cheese, ice-cream, yogurt; all are dairy and the denominator / denominate is 'milk' (assuming you are not lactose-intolerant ;) )

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Someone care to explain the down-vote? – Souta Oct 11 '12 at 23:59
Not my downvote, but I'm guessing you may have put someone off by your opening statement. Not only that, if you're going to call other examples "crappy", you'd best offer a mighty good one in contrast, and I wouldn't call your dairy example "great." Lastly, you call other answers "iffy", but then claim you'd say something like "X is the denominator of y." What's so iffy about saying "common denominator" is common? It seems to be a valid claim. – J.R. Oct 12 '12 at 8:30
@J.R. I said current answers. I was also implying that my answer was a crappy one. I was also implying my answer was iffy. (lame shot at being funny, I suppose) I didn't say the word other because I know that I'm not always the best at explaining things, but I thought I'd give it a shot. But thank you for possibly clearing that up. – Souta Oct 12 '12 at 11:40
Current answers could include or exclude your own, that's ambiguous at best. And, even if you are trying to be self-deprecating, you're still taking a shot at two other answers. (That said, I believe you when you said you meant it good-naturedly, and were trying to be more humorous than critical). – J.R. Oct 12 '12 at 12:56
@J.R. I'd just like it stated that if I were taking jabs at the other answers, I'd have down-voted them. (In fact, I had up-voted Ed's because he listed a source, and left Bob alone because his answer wasn't wrong, it just wasn't all that detailed.) Anyway, again thank you. – Souta Oct 12 '12 at 12:59

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