More on the history of comprised of meaning "composed of"

« previous post | next post »

Following up on my post "Counterfeit cultural capital" (5/11/2011), David Russinoff sent some additional information about the early history of expressions like "angles comprised of equal right lines" in English translations of Euclid.  I reproduce his note in full below, in order to make his efforts available to other interested scholars, while adding a warning to others that this may go a bit deep in the historical-lexicography weeds even for hardened LL readers.

Recall that the OED cites two instances of "comprise" under the meaning "To constitute, make up, compose" (which  it characterizes as "rare"), both from 1794.  This is consistent with the usage note found at, according to which this meaning has been around "since the late 18th century".  Your search of Google Books turned up two much earlier (and strikingly similar) instances:

"For so tho' a Triangle in the most simple and precise Conception of it be only a figure comprised of three right Lines …" — John Norris's "Essay Towards the Theory of the Ideal or Intelligible World", 1704.

"Seeing then the angles comprised of equal right lines are equal, we have found the angle FDE equal to the angle ABC; …" — Isaac Barrow's translation of Euclid's "Elements", 1714 edition.

Since Barrow's English translation was originally published in 1660, I wondered whether the usage might in fact date back that far, but you also located the first edition on line and found no occurrence of "comprised of".  One of your readers then observed that the line in question appeared not in "Elements" proper but in a translation of Euclid's "Data", which is appended to the 1714 edition but not the original.

This afternoon, I killed a couple of hours at my local library and learned that although Barrow translated "Data" into Latin in 1657, it was not included in his 1660 English edition.  However, an independent English translation of "Data" was published in 1661 by John Leeke and George Serle, containing the line quoted above (with "comprized" instead of "compriſed").  I took a closer look at the 1714 edition of Barrow's Euclid and found no clue on its title page to the origin of its version of "Data": "Euclide's Elements, The whole Fifteen Books Compendiously Demonſtrated, with Archimedes' Theorems of the Sphere and Cylinder, inveſtigated by the Method of Indiviſibles, by Isaac Barrow, D.D. Late Mafter of Trinity College in Cambridge, to which is added in this Edition, Euclide's Data with Marinus's Preface and a Brief Treatise of Regular Solids.  London: Printed and Sold by W. Redmayne in Fewen-ftreet, R. Mount on Tower-hill, and F. and B. Sprint in Little-britain. 1714."  In fact, the unattributed 1714 translation of "Data" turns out to be a verbatim copy of the 1661 translation of Leeke and Serle.

Was this 1661 edition an original translation of "Data"?  Its preface explicitly lists the inclusion of "Data" among those features "which hath not been done by any that have publiſhed theſe Elements in the Engliſs Tongue …."  However, plagiarism has apparently not always been viewed as a serious offense, and one naturally wonders whether the Leeke and Serle usage of "comprised" might have been inherited from a still earlier source.  In fact, Thomas Heath noted in the introduction to his 1908 translation of "Elements", "According to [Robert] Potts, [Leeke and Serle 1661] was a second edition of Billingsley's [1570] translation."  This is refuted, however, by R.C. Archibald (American Mathematical Monthly, August 1950) and again by Dana Simpkins (Annals of Science, July 1967), who assures us that in Leeke and Serle 1661, "Euclid's Data [was] issued for the first time in England and in English".

It seems, then, that the first two recorded instances of the controversial usage appeared in 1661 and 1704, from two apparently independent sources, and that the first such instance not referring to a thing "comprised of" right lines did not appear until 1794.  I'm not sure what to do with this information.

Publish it in a weblog post, what else?



  1. sam said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:15 am

    What's the word Euclid used? As an ex-classicist, this smacks of translationese to me.

  2. Xmun said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 9:54 am

    Surely the 1714 edition must have "a Brief Treatiſe of Regular Solids", not "Treatise"?

  3. Russinoff said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 10:19 am

    Yeah, it was late at night when I wrote this. Since reading it this morning, I've already asked Mark to fix a couple of typos; I won't bother him again with this one.

  4. marc said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 11:02 am

    Perhaps someone can clear up my confusion. Russinoff seems to be talking about "comprised OF," but says, "Recall that the OED cites two instances of "comprise" under the meaning 'To constitute, make up, compose' (which it characterizes as "rare"), both from 1794."

    The problem is that "to constitute, make up, compose" corresponds to the uncontroversial and non-rare use of "comprise," not "comprise OF." It seems to me he should be referring to the meaning "To be composed of, to consist of."

    Assuming he made a mistake, there is still a discrepancy in the number of citations under each entry in the Online OED (reproduced below). (That link will obviously only work through the Austin Library website.)

    Perhaps he was working with an older paper edition of the OED.

    b. To constitute, make up, compose.

    1794 W. Paley View Evidences Christianity I. i. ix. 212 The propositions which comprise the several heads of our testimony.
    1799 W. Jones Adams's Lect. Nat. & Exper. Philos. (ed. 2) II. xvi. App. 262 The wheels and pinions comprizing the wheel-work.
    1850 W. S. Harris Rudim. Magn. iv. 73 These substances which we have termed diamagnetic‥and which comprise a very extensive class of bodies.
    1907 H. E. Santee Anat. Brain & Spinal Cord (1908) iii. 237 The fibres comprising the zonal layer have four sources of origin.
    1925 Brit. Jrnl. Radiology 30 148 The various fuses etc. comprising the circuit.
    1950 M. Peake Gormenghast xiv. 86 Who, by the way, do comprise the Staff these latter days?
    1959 Chambers's Encycl. XIII. 653/1 These fibres also comprise the main element in scar tissue.
    1969 W. Hooper in C. S. Lewis Sel. Lit. Ess. p. xix, These essays together with those contained in this volume comprise the total of C. S. Lewis's essays on literature.
    1969 N. Perrin Dr. Bowdler's Legacy (1970) i. 20 As to who comprised this new reading public, Jeffrey‥guessed in 1812 that there were 20,000 upper-class readers in Great Britain.
    (Hide quotations)

    c. pass. To be composed of, to consist of.

    1874 Art of Paper-Making ii. 10 Thirds, or Mixed, are comprised of either or both of the above.
    1928 Daily Tel. 17 July 10/7 The voluntary boards of management, comprised‥of very zealous and able laymen.
    1964 E. Palmer tr. A. Martinet Elem. Gen. Ling. i. 28 Many of these words are comprised of monemes.
    1970 Nature 27 June 1206/2 Internally, the chloroplast is comprised of a system of flattened membrane sacs.

  5. marc said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 11:08 am

    Sorry, to clarify my own comment: when I say "a discrepancy in the number of citations," I mean that although Russinoff said, "the OED cites two instances of "comprise" under the meaning "To constitute, make up, compose," there are in fact eight citations under that meaning and four under the other meaning, allowing for a possible mistake on his part between the two meanings.

  6. Russinoff said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 11:55 am

    Yes, my reference was a compact two-volume paper edition, which I don't have with me, but which I think was published in the 1970s. I'll admit that I find it increasingly difficult to read (the magnifying glass helps a bit), but I'm certain that of the citations that you list above, only the first two (under 8 (b)) appear in my edition, where they are both dated 1794, whereas the second in your list is dated 1799.

    It did strike me as strange that only two citations were listed, that they had the same date, and that there were no citations of the "comprised of" variant, which seems to be more common today. However, I disagree with your observation that "to constitute, make up, compose" corresponds to the uncontroversial usage. (I'll accept "non-rare" — it is only my copy of OED that characterizes it as rare.) Before 1661, to comprise was not to compose, but rather to be composed of; one might have referred to the wheel-work as comprising the wheels and pinions, but not the wheels and pinions comprising the wheel-work. The latter usage, which I consider to be equivalent to describing the wheel-work as being comprised of wheels and pinions, is the relatively new and controversial usage.

    I would also note that even your updated OED does not cite any instance of this usage before 1794, so that the significance of our contribution (if you'll allow me to think of you as a collaborator) remains undiminished.

  7. Russinoff said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

    I little more confusion here: I mistook Marc for Mark; my final paragraph above was intended for the latter.

  8. Steve Kass said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 12:46 pm

    In Barrow’s translation of Euclid, the mathematical idea communicated by “comprised of” does not use the sense of “comprise” that David suggests it is.

    Euclid (though Barrow) is invoking the fact that when two triangles have corresponding sides that are equal (SSS from high school geometry), their corresponding angles are equal.

    Barrow’s “the angles compriſed of equal right-lines” identifies the angles that appear in a triangle, given certain line segments (lengths) as the triangle’s sides. The right-lines (i.e. line segments) determine the angles. The three segments arranged in this way contain these angles. Whether or not Euclid ever considered angles to be made up of component line segments, that isn’t what’s being stated here.

    Barrow might have done better for modern ears with “comprised by.” “Comprised by” is what’s meant here, and Barrow communicated this faithfully with “compriſed of,” assuming his audience could never have misunderstood comprised to mean composed.

    If anything, then, I think this example of “compriſed of” argues for a later, not earlier, start to the controversial usage.

    (I’m not a Euclid scholar, and I didn’t check the Latin, but I am a mathematician, and I think I understand the mathematics at hand.)

  9. marc said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 1:11 pm

    I think I see where my confusion was now. You're saying that "comprise" to mean "comprised of"/"consisting of" is the controversial meaning, right?

    Also, sorry for referring to you in the third person. I hadn't realized you had commented in the thread.

  10. Russinoff said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 3:32 pm

    Steve Kass: A couple of points are in need of clarification:

    (1) The English translation under scrutiny is not due to Barrow, but to Leeke and Serle. This was the main point of my note to Liberman.

    (2) I too have a background in mathematics. Our interpretations of the translation may disagree, but probably not because one of us lacks an understanding of Euclidean geometry.

    But you may very well be correct in your judgment that the translators did not consider an angle to be composed of its sides. They similarly refer to a rectangle as being "comprised under" its sides, and I'm not sure how that should be interpreted. The 1704 discussion by John Norris of "a figure comprised of equal right lines seems more clearly to be a departure from traditional usage.

    Marc: No, I'm saying that "comprised of" to mean "consisting of", or equivalently, "comprise" to mean "constitute" is the controversial usage.

  11. marc said,

    June 6, 2011 @ 8:00 pm

    Got it now.

  12. Steve Kass said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 1:16 am

    Rusinoff said,

    Steve Kass: A couple of points are in need of clarification:

    Thanks for the clarifications. And I agree that the appearance of “comprised of” by Norris in 1704 is more clearly a departure from the traditional usage.

    For what it’s worth, the fact that this Google Books search for “comprised of” leads to a 1686 example of “composed of” got me wondering. Could any early examples (other than Leeke and Serle’s) of the controversial use of “comprised of” have been due to an accidental transformation of o to ri (perhaps via )? It’s not hard to imagine broken type or wrinkled paper causing this.

  13. a George said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 3:10 am

    - this is mostly along the line indicated by marc in his first comment:
    In patent law there is a fine distinction between “comprising” and “comprised of”. Not every jurisdiction accepts this, and it much too frequently is lost in translation. In US patent law, every applicant is entitled to use his own vocabulary, but if he wants to avoid trouble when courts construe his claims, he would have to define the vocabulary. For instance the following boilerplate text may be used concerning the fine distinction:

    ‘The term "comprising" in the present application is intended to convey the idea of a collection of items that are relevant for the present invention, but it does not exclude that further items may be present and/or relevant. The term "comprising" is not intended to convey the idea of a completeness to the exclusion of other items, which would be better described by the expression "consisting of".’

    Note the elegance of not at all mentioning “comprised of”, which is commonly used to signify “….. to the exclusion of all other items”, i.e. “consisting of”.
    NOTE: in the above, whenever the term “he” or “his” is used, it also includes “she” or “her”, respectively.

  14. Russinoff said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    George: Can you provide an example of such a legal clarification (either boilerplate or custom-written) that promotes the usage of "comprised of" that we have been calling "controversial"?

  15. Mark Liberman said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 10:40 am

    The controversial use of "comprised of" is certainly very common in legal opinions, e.g. Aro Mfg. Co. v. Convertible Top Replacement Co., 365 US 336 – Supreme Court 1961:

    The decisions of this Court require the conclusion that reconstruction of a patented entity, comprised of unpatented elements, is limited to such a true reconstruction of the entity as to "in fact make a new article." United States v. Aluminum Co. of America, supra, at 425, after the entity, viewed as a whole, has become spent.

    The question of what this phrase means seem to have itself become a legal issue, e.g. Cias, Inc. v. Alliance Gaming Corp., 504 F. 3d 1356 – Court of Appeals, Federal Circuit 2007:

    We conclude that although the district court erred in its construction of the term "comprised of," that error did not affect the construction of the substantive terms that support the judgment of non-infringement. [...]

    The district court found that the meaning of "comprised of" has not been clearly resolved in patent-specific precedent, and therefore the court held that the "ordinary and customary meaning" should be used. The court ruled that "comprised of" does not have the same open-ended meaning as "comprising," which also appears in claim 1, and that "comprised of" should be construed as a closed-end term that excludes the presence of all elements beyond those presented in the "comprised of" clause. Thus the court defined "comprised of" as "a limiting description of composition," reasoning that "[t]his construction preserves the distinction between `comprised of' and `comprising,' the latter of which in fact is a patent term of art when used in a transitional phrase. . . ."

    We conclude that this ruling is not correct. Although "comprised of" is not used as regularly as "comprising," and "comprised of" is sometimes used other than as a "transition phrase," nonetheless it partakes of long-standing recognition as an open-ended term. See generally 3 Chisum on Patents § 8.06[1][b], at 8-180-82 (2007) (claims usually are structured with a preamble, a "transition phrase," and the elements or steps that are necessary to the right to exclude). The usual and generally consistent meaning of "comprised of," when it is used as a transition phrase, is, like "comprising," that the ensuing elements or steps are not limiting. The conventional usage of "comprising" generally also applies to "comprised of."

  16. a George said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 10:59 am

    @Rusinoff: alas, I am not "George", merely a George. Anyway, I think that myl has covered it splendidly. He obviously has a Westlaw account.

  17. Russinoff said,

    June 7, 2011 @ 11:34 am

    Fascinating. And a George, I apologize for the inadvertent abridgment of your name. You may have been intentionally returning the disfavor, but in case not, note that I am not "Rusinoff", but "Russinoff". (And in case you ever find occasion to utter the name, note that the second 's' has the phonetic effect of shortening the 'u'.)

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Comment