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Matrix (pronounced 'MATE-ricks', IPA: /ˈmeɪt rɪks/), with plural matrices ('MATE-riss-ease', /ˈmeɪt rɪs iːz/) is a word with an intriguing history. The overall meaning is a "supporting or enclosing structure" (OED, 2021).

  • Originally it meant a womb, or uterus, sometimes extended to an ovary; in general "the part of the female reproductive tract producing or storing eggs or embryos" (ibid). This meaning is now lost in current English.
  • Naturally enough, this became in biological contexts applied to the parts of an organism that serve to be the originators, or 'parents', of the later visible parts of the independent organism. For example, the nail matrix is the bodily tissue from which the nail at the end of a human digit is formed.
  • This meaning became transferred in various figurative ways, with the general meaning of 'a supporting or containing structure or material':
    • soil is the matrix for seeds' development and growth;
    • mineral formations, or specific rocks, are matrices for gemstones, as chalk is a matrix of flint. (These geological matrices are also called veinstone and gangue);
    • in biology, "[a]n amorphous or fibrillar material that surrounds cells; esp[ecially] the extracellular substance of connective tissue" (OED, 2021). "The viscous watery fluid that surrounds cells in animal tissues" (Hine, 2019).
    • Matrix is then used to name the material used to support or contain coarser materials, as cement is used to bind aggregates such as pebbles to make concrete, or various filling materials are mixed with pharmaceuticals for a matrix to make the pills dispensed in pharmacies.
    • "The elements which make up a particular system, regarded as an interconnecting network" (OED, 2021).
      • This gives rise to a currently dominant meaning, 'a graphical convention in such fields as mathematics, computing, data-processing, electronics, and logic: a two-dimensional array of cells arranged in rows and columns'. It is sometimes synonymous with array. In science fiction, the concept of a computer array within which people (or their avatars) can move and act is often called The Matrix, after the 1999 film and its sequels. (There is also an historical novel by Lauren Groff about Marie de France called Matrix, which has no connection with science fiction.)
  • In technical fields involving physical objects, a matrix can be a mould, the die from which something may be cast in metal or fashioned in other materials. For example:
    • the mould from which identical masks can be formed, for theatrical or protesting purposes;
    • the 'master', or original, sound recording from which commercial gramophone records are pressed;
    • the moulds which allow the production of numbers of identically shaped items of crockery;
    • in printing (where the first syllable is pronounced with the sound of 'mat', to rhyme with 'cat', 'hat' and 'that') - IPA: /ˈmæt rɪks, ˈmæt rɪs iːz/) a matrix is first and foremost a metal block in which an individual letter type is cast; and later a cast made, in papier maché or similar soft material, of a line of type in which copies may be cast.

Etymological note: matrix has an odd origin, being formed from the Latin mater, 'mother', with the suffix -trix which signals feminine - which may seem an unnecessary addition to the most female of nouns. Its meaning may be seen in the several definitions above which include 'copies'. (The original classical Latin matrix meant a "female animal kept for breeding" (OED, 2021).