Definition:Element/Historical Note

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Historical Note on Element

The symbol for is an element of originated as $\varepsilon$, first used by Giuseppe Peano in his Arithmetices prinicipia nova methodo exposita of $1889$. It comes from the first letter of the Greek word meaning is.

The stylized version $\in$ was first used by Bertrand Russell in Principles of Mathematics in 1903.

See Earliest Uses of Symbols of Set Theory and Logic in Jeff Miller's website Earliest Uses of Various Mathematical Symbols.


$x \mathop \varepsilon S$ could still be seen in works as late as 1951: Nathan Jacobson: Lectures in Abstract Algebra: I. Basic Concepts and 1955: John L. Kelley: General Topology.

Paul Halmos wrote in Naive Set Theory in 1960 that:

This version [$\epsilon$] of the Greek letter epsilon is so often used to denote belonging that its use to denote anything else is almost prohibited. Most authors relegate $\epsilon$ to its set-theoretic use forever and use $\varepsilon$ when they need the fifth letter of the Greek alphabet.

However, since then the symbol $\in$ has been developed in such a style as to be easily distinguishable from $\epsilon$, and by the end of the $1960$s the contemporary notation was practically universal.


Sources