al·​go·​rithm | \ ˈal-gə-ˌri-t͟həm How to pronounce algorithm (audio) \

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 How to pronounce algorithmic (audio) \ adjective
algorithmically \ ˌal-​gə-​ˈrit͟h-​mi-​k(ə-​)lē How to pronounce algorithmically (audio) \ 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 In fact, the only villain of the film is fictional—a personification of an AI algorithm in a story line about a typical family’s struggles with social media, played by Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser. Elizabeth Pankova, The New Republic, "The Social Dilemma and the Rise of the Clickbait Documentary," 8 Oct. 2020 What if physicists made an algorithm for galaxies, but somebody else re-purposed it for surveillance? Sophia Chen, Wired, "To Make Fairer AI, Physicists Peer Inside Its Black Box," 22 Sep. 2020 In other words, no algorithm, however clever, may be able to process all possible cases. Jean-paul Delahaye, Scientific American, "For Math Fans: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Number 42," 21 Sep. 2020 The algorithm is at the center of a real-world experiment New York City began late last year to help decide who stays in jail before a criminal trial and who goes free. Corinne Ramey, WSJ, "Algorithm Helps New York Decide Who Goes Free Before Trial," 20 Sep. 2020 China’s ByteDance would be the majority shareholder, and would retain control of the recommendation algorithm that Beijing apparently doesn’t want to see sold off. David Meyer, Fortune, "How businesses are preparing for the U.S. election outcome," 16 Sep. 2020 But if the algorithm is TikTok’s secret sauce, then its consumer-friendly advertising experience is the protein: A critical part of the app’s growth and the foundation of its still untapped potential. Adam Epstein, Quartz, "TikTok’s enormous value isn’t just in its algorithm," 15 Sep. 2020 But for Holm and Rotenberg, the speed of the algorithm is less important than the insights that accelerated it. Quanta Magazine, "A New Algorithm for Graph Crossings, Hiding in Plain Sight," 15 Sep. 2020 Any algorithm would be better with a better input, though, and Google has basically ignored the past four years of camera-hardware progress, allowing its competitors to close the gap. Ron Amadeo, Ars Technica, "Rumor: Pixel 5 is slower than the Pixel 4, has same camera as the Pixel 2," 24 Aug. 2020

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

Time Traveler for algorithm

Time Traveler

The first known use of algorithm was in 1926

See more words from the same year

Statistics for algorithm

Last Updated

17 Oct 2020

Cite this Entry

“Algorithm.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.

Keep scrolling for more

More Definitions for algorithm


How to pronounce algorithm (audio)

English Language Learners Definition of algorithm

technical : 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

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).


Test Your Vocabulary

Namesakes Word Quiz

  • a citrus fruit possibly named after a person
  • Which of the following is a fruit named after a Moroccan seaport?
Spell It

Can you spell these 10 commonly misspelled words?


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!