al·go·rithm | \ ˈal-gə-ˌri-t͟həm \

Definition of algorithm 

: a procedure for solving a mathematical problem (as of finding the greatest common divisor) in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation broadly : a step-by-step procedure for solving a problem or accomplishing some end There are several search engines, with Google, Yahoo and Bing being the biggest players. Each search engine has its own proprietary computation (called an "algorithm") that ranks websites for each keyword or combination of keywords. —Julie Brinton … sometimes you solve a problem by coming up with an algorithm of some kind. But sometimes you solve a problem in a very ad hoc sort of way. —William H. Huggins

Keep scrolling for more

Other words from algorithm

algorithmic \ˌal-gə-ˈrit͟h-mik \ adjective
algorithmically \-mi-k(ə-)lē \ adverb

What Does algorithm Mean?

The current term of choice for a problem-solving procedure, algorithm, is commonly used nowadays for the set of rules a machine (and especially a computer) follows to achieve a particular goal. It does not always apply to computer-mediated activity, however. The term may as accurately be used of the steps followed in making a pizza or solving a Rubik’s Cube as for computer-powered data analysis.

Algorithm is often paired with words specifying the activity for which a set of rules have been designed. A search algorithm, for example, is a procedure that determines what kind of information is retrieved from a large mass of data. An encryption algorithm is a set of rules by which information or messages are encoded so that unauthorized persons cannot read them.

Though first attested in the early 20th century (and, until recently, used strictly as a term of mathematics and computing), algorithm has a surprisingly deep history. It was formed from algorism “the system of Arabic numerals,” a word that goes back to Middle English and ultimately stems from the name of a 9th-century Persian mathematician, abu-Jaʽfar Mohammed ibn-Mūsa al-Khuwārizmi, who did important work in the fields of algebra and numeric systems.

Examples of algorithm in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web

The test uses a proprietary algorithm to analyze 12 different genes to weigh their combined influence on patient response to more than 55 psychotropic drugs. Courtenay Harris Bond,, "Which antidepressant is right for you? This genetic test could help," 11 July 2018 And then there are the comments, easily viewed thanks to Instagram’s new algorithm. Elise Taylor, Vogue, "What’s Going on With Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson? Check Instagram," 15 June 2018 There’s a whole algorithm — your exposure to toxins, post-traumatic stress, the rest of your health profile, your hormones, lifestyle. Katie Heaney, The Cut, "‘Being Believed Is Everything’: What It’s Like Living With a Controversial Diagnosis," 6 June 2018 Analysts say retailers are also increasingly relying on algorithms and sales data to determine what shoppers want. Abha Bhattarai,, "Why do retailers like Zara and H&M keep making headlines for offensive clothing?," 2 July 2018 Such a move would concentrate enormous amounts of cultural power in the hands of a few content commissioners and algorithms. The Economist, "Can Netflix please investors and still avoid the techlash?," 28 June 2018 Sensors and algorithms create a custom temperature while the auto-away function adjusts the system when your home is empty to help save energy. Nedra Rhone, ajc, "10 great Father’s Day gift ideas," 7 June 2018 McBride worries irresponsible reporting on celebrity suicides may worsen in a media environment where headlines are written to break through social media algorithms and thousands of websites compete for readers' attention. Alia E. Dastagir, USA TODAY, "The unintentional consequences of suicide coverage," 6 June 2018 Its core feature, the company said, is an algorithm-powered IVF assisting tool that predicts total cost and success rate and brokers clients with local and overseas clinics. Serenitie Wang, CNN, "Recovering from one child: China's growing fertility problem," 7 May 2018

These example sentences are selected automatically from various online news sources to reflect current usage of the word 'algorithm.' Views expressed in the examples do not represent the opinion of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback.

See More

First Known Use of algorithm

1926, in the meaning defined above

History and Etymology for algorithm

alteration of Middle English algorisme, from Old French & Medieval Latin; Old French, from Medieval Latin algorismus, from Arabic al-khuwārizmi, from al-Khwārizmī flourished a.d. 825 Islamic mathematician

Keep scrolling for more

Learn More about algorithm

Dictionary Entries near algorithm








Statistics for algorithm

Last Updated

16 Sep 2018

Look-up Popularity

Time Traveler for algorithm

The first known use of algorithm was in 1926

See more words from the same year

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for algorithm



English Language Learners Definition of algorithm

: a set of steps that are followed in order to solve a mathematical problem or to complete a computer process

Keep scrolling for more

More from Merriam-Webster on algorithm

Spanish Central: Translation of algorithm

Nglish: Translation of algorithm for Spanish Speakers

Britannica English: Translation of algorithm for Arabic Speakers Encyclopedia article about algorithm

Comments on algorithm

What made you want to look up algorithm? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


an open space surrounded by woods

Get Word of the Day daily email!

Test Your Vocabulary

Name that Food Quiz

Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.


Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!