Because of the fact that Rene Descartes developed the Cartesian coordinate system, I would think that the word Cartesian would be named after him (Des-cartes). However, I can't shake the feeling that it should be named after the Latin carta, meaning map: after all, the Cartesian system is a mapping system.

Or maybe Descartes isn't the inventor's real name, and he changed his name to that after discovering the system?

Could someone help me out here?

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    For future reference, try etymonline.com for etymology.
    – user11550
    May 1, 2012 at 20:21
  • I was about to ask the question here then I typed Cartesian into the title box and this popped up. Thanks!
    – Shuhao Cao
    Jul 17, 2013 at 23:58
  • 1
    Tempting as it may be, the conjecture that the name "Descartes" refers to his geometrical invention and method, is provably wrong. The name Descartes is known to have first been used by the philosopher in his Law Thesis from 1616, long before he explicitly developed the idea of mapping thoughts, let alone the idea of a geometrical coordinate system. Jun 11, 2017 at 10:53

5 Answers 5


According to Etymonline, Cartesian is the:

…Latinized form of the name of French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes (1596-1650).

So yes, it is named after him.

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    Exactly. The reason is that des- merely means "of", so it is like calling a symphony Beethovian rather than Vanbeethovian after Ludwig van Beethoven, except that the preposition happens to be written attached to Cartes nowadays so it is harder to recognize. There was considerably more freedom in spelling in those days, so both des Cartes and Descartes were probably acceptable. Note that des literally means "of the" (van means "of"). May 2, 2012 at 3:23

Merriam-Webster shows that Cartesian is derived from the Latinised form of "Descartes", Cartesius.


If you are asking why it isn't called the "Descartesian" system. Descartes would originally have meant "of Cartes" and presumably some distant ancestor came from a village called Cartes

So when his name was latinised they dropped the 'of' part and based it on the main part - cartes


It is after Descartes and not a map or "carte". Cartesian geometry is actually the main etymological driver here. As Descarte, amongst other things, actually came up with placing 2 numberlines perpendicularly in order to create the X-Y co-ordinate system we all know and love. In fact it wouldn't surprise me if the term carte (for map) is itself derived from Descartes.

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    The term carte for map predates Descartes. According to dictionary.com: "before 1150; Middle English, Old English: writing paper, document, letter < Latin charta < Greek chártēs sheet of papyrus". The similarity appears to be entirely coincidental. May 1, 2012 at 20:53
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    Per the Magna Carta, carta is Latin. I don't know where @KeithThompson got his phantom h from.
    – tchrist
    May 1, 2012 at 21:18
  • @tchrist: As I said, I got it from dictionary.com, which could well be incorrect; Wiktionary shows the Latin as carta. May 1, 2012 at 22:12

Let's not forget Jacques Cartier b.1491 Jacques Cartier

And Wiktionary has carte derived from the Greek carte

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