FOM: History of Pigeon-hole Principle

Rebecca Weber rweber at
Mon Dec 4 22:57:52 EST 2000

I believe I can complete the chain back to actual pigeons here.

>Matt Frank asked:
>>What I'd like to know about the pigeonhole principle is:  when did it come
>>to be associated with pigeons?

In old-fashioned desks, one has a collection of little nooks or recesses
where a rolled-up paper might reside, called pigeonholes.  As I learned it,
the pigeonhole principle was so named because the intuition was if you had
n+1 papers, there was no way to put them into n pigeonholes without
doubling up papers.  The pigeonholes in the desk were called that for their
resemblance to nesting holes in a pigeon loft.

I think, though, that this only pushes the arbitrariness of the pigeons up
one level.
Rebecca Weber
Grad student, University of Notre Dame

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