Physics problems are usually written like:

The rate of change of the soup's temperature ...

Is there a common English word that captures "rate of change" or "speed of change" in a single word, other than derivative?

  • 1
    That's hard, because phrases like "rate of change" have such specific technical meanings that something will invariably be lost in their substitution. Another example is "goodness of fit". I would argue that "derivative" is actually not a good synonym for "rate of change" because it denotes the mathematical operation associated with a "rate of change", but not the notion of "rate of change" itself.
    – Gilead
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:14
  • Are you looking for a word that is valid in a specific context, or in general?
    – apaderno
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:16
  • However, if you are looking for synonyms for the mathematical idea of a derivative, there are: 1) differential coefficient; 2) gradient/slope function; or simply, 3) differential.
    – Gilead
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:18
  • @Gilead - I provided gradient below. Slope is also a synonym for "rate of change" but I couldn't imagine using the word slope in the context of soup:-)
    – ukayer
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 1:12
  • 2
    "Speed" is rate of change of position. "Acceleration" is rate of change of speed. "Jerk" is rate of change of acceleration.
    – Hot Licks
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 15:40

5 Answers 5


Speed is used for the rate of change of distance with respect to time. Sometimes speed is used in contexts similar to what you mention.

How quickly will the soup reach room temperature.

  • I'm settling for "growth speed", "motion speed", and "temperature speed". Its a bit awkward, but I like how speed is scalar and doesn't imply direction, leaving the quantity that is changing to determine direction (negative growth=shrinkage, negative motion=backwards, negative temp=cooling)
    – bobobobo
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 12:17
  • Sorry, that should have been heat speed, not temperature speed, since temperature is not a verb
    – bobobobo
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 13:07
  • 2
    @bobobobo - heat speed doesn't really work, even in your example sentence, "the heat speed of the soup..." would be quite wrong. How are you planning to use the term? I should add that @David's rephrasing is just fine if that is what you are looking for.
    – ukayer
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 14:50
  • @bobobobo "growth rate" -> growth rate, "motion speed" -> speed, and "temperature speed" -> warming rate. This is because growth already implies delta size vs. delta time; warming implies delta Temp vs. delta time.
    – David W
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 14:55
  • I am purposefully using the same word to mean "rate of change" - even if it does not quite seem to fit at first. Can you point out what is wrong with heat speed, except that it is not in common use (yet? ;) I'm talking about the rate of change of the temperature of the soup - in other words, the heating speed of the soup. If it is +, then the soup is heating, if it is -, the soup is cooling.
    – bobobobo
    Commented Feb 15, 2011 at 4:24

I tend to use 'delta', but it's what I call an 'acquired' definition - it's one I picked up along the way, but I have no idea if it's the correct one.

  • Differential or delta is what I would use, but only with scientists and mathematicians. Otherwise I would always say "rate of change".
    – Orbling
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:32
  • 2
    Delta technically denotes "change" though, not "rate of change". In a difference quotient, the ratio of two deltas give a rate of change.
    – Gilead
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:39
  • 1
    I think saying "delta f" or "the delta of f" or "the difference of f" is fine if f is sampled. The denominator in the quotient is the trivial "1 sample", and it's easily inferred. That said, it's the equivalent of "the derivative of f with respect to" in the continuous case, so I think, as per the question's exclusion of "derivative", it's not really the answer. All I could think of was Newton's "fluxion", and that fails for being uncommon.
    – Eryk Sun
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 10:23
  • 𝛿 soup /𝛿 t (I came here to mention fluxions.)
    – Patrick M
    Commented Jul 12, 2014 at 15:19

Another synonym is "velocity". In pediatrics they say "height velocity" to refer to the growth in stature per year. For the second derivative you can say "acceleration".

  • Good answer. Going with speed, it should not imply a direction
    – bobobobo
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 12:18

You could use gradient for the example given, e.g. "the soup was being warmed with a temperature gradient of 10 degrees every 5 minutes".

  • 3
    That's not a typical use of gradient - usually it means the differential in physical space...
    – HorusKol
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:13
  • @HorusKol: There you go. Differential is the right word.
    – Yitzchak
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:22
  • I'm not sure about that. Consider the OP's sample sentence. If you had substituted "differential" into it, it would read: "The differential of the soup's temperature...", a substitution which does not seem to be correct in the given context.
    – Gilead
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 0:38
  • Differential doesn't imply the rate of change with respect to time the same way that speed does.
    – David W
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 1:02
  • @HorusKol - I agree. The only phrase I personally would ever use is "rate of change".
    – ukayer
    Commented Feb 14, 2011 at 1:08

If you were an economist you might talk about the "marginal increase in temperature of the soup". Outside economics the word is not used very much in that sense.

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