What is "logistic" about the logistic distribution, in a common sense way? What is the etymology of and the lexical rationale for the name, not just pure math definition?

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    $\begingroup$ At en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logistic_function it is mention that "The function was named in 1844–1845 by Pierre François Verhulst, who studied it in relation to population growth". The lexical rational is still unclear, at least for me $\endgroup$
    – DaL
    Jan 28 '16 at 19:02
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    $\begingroup$ For me, the association is with the log-odds or logit function $\log\left(\dfrac{p}{1-p}\right)$ which has the inverse $\dfrac{\exp(x)}{1+\exp(x)} = \dfrac{1}{\exp(-x)+1}$ which is the standard logistic function. So is it log- as in "logarithm" and -istic (or -istique in French) as in "related to". $\endgroup$
    – Henry
    Jan 28 '16 at 19:26
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    $\begingroup$ See Why logistic (sigmoid) ogive and not autocatalytic curve? "Though he [Verhulst] does not explain this choice, there is a connection with the logarithmic basis of the function. Logarithm was coined by John Napier (1550-1617) from Greek logos (ratio, proportion, reckoning) and arithmos (number). Logistic comes from the Greek logistikos (computational). In the 1700's, logarithmic and logistic were synonymous. Since computation is needed to predict the supplies an army requires, logistics has come to be also used for the movement and supply of troops". $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jan 29 '16 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ If it was studied in the context of "logistics", then @DaL's answer makes perfect sense. $\endgroup$
    – Digio
    Jul 11 '17 at 21:45

The source document for the name "logistic" seems to be this 1844 presentation by P.-F. Verhulst, "Recherches mathématiques sur la loi d'accroissement de la population," in NOUVEAUX MÉMOIRES DE L'ACADÉMIE ROYALE DES SCIENCES ET BELLES-LETTRES DE BRUXELLES, vol. 18, p 1.

He differentiated what we would now call exponential growth of population when resources are essentially unlimited (as seen for example in the growth of the US population in the late 18th and early 19th centuries) from the slower growth when resource limits begin to be reached.

What we call exponential growth, however, he called a "logarithmique" curve (page 6).

He then developed a formula for population growth in the presence of resource limits, and said of the resulting curve:

"Nous donnerons le nom de logistique à la courbe..." which I translate as "We call the curve logistic..." (original emphasis).

That would seem to be intended to distinguish this growth pattern from the "logarithmique" growth in the absence of resource limits, as the figure at the end of the paper illustrates.

enter image description here

The specific form of the equation presented by Verhulst allows for an arbitrary upper asymptote (eq. 5, page 9), while the form we know and love in statistics is the specific case with an asymptote of 1.

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    $\begingroup$ OED also attributes this sense of "logistic" to Pierre François Verhulst, although the word was used as a synonym of "logarithmic" long before that. $\endgroup$
    – Francis
    Jan 28 '16 at 22:38
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    $\begingroup$ But why did Verhulst chose the name "logistique"? Did this word mean something in French that was somehow related to the shape of the curve, or population growth, or limited resources? $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jan 29 '16 at 0:47
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    $\begingroup$ @amoeba - Looking purely at etymology (Henry's comment above seems more concrete to me!): within the French language, 'logistique' comes from 'loger', which means to live (to lodge). It however came to French originally through the Greek 'λογιστικός', meaning practical or rational (logical?). So maybe it can be understood that Verhulst saw the version of the model without limits, i.e. unlimited resources, as irrational. Calling the model with limits on resources as the rational model. $\endgroup$
    – n1k31t4
    Jan 29 '16 at 2:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Dexter: interesting hypothesis! By the way, French Wikipedia says: "Le nom de courbe logistique leur a été donné par Verhulst sans que l'on sache exactement pourquoi. Il écrit en 1845 dans son ouvrage consacré à ce phénomène : « Nous donnerons le terme de logistique à cette courbe ». L'auteur n'explique pas son choix mais « logistique » a même racine que logarithme et logistikos signifie « calcul » en grec." -- so they say that the author did not explain his choice of word and the exact reason remains unknown. $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jan 29 '16 at 10:55
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    $\begingroup$ @n1k31t4 logistics (from French logistique, loger) is unrelated (1830 military coinage), and was actually criticized for being an unnecessary new term with a confusing etymology (see revision). $\endgroup$ Nov 1 '18 at 13:24

(Cross-posted from History of Science and Mathematics: source of “logistic growth”?)

As Ed states, the term logistic is due to the Belgian mathematician Pierre François Verhulst, who invented the logistic growth model, and named it logistic (French: logistique) in his 1845 "Recherches mathématiques sur la loi d'accroissement de la population", p. 8:

Nous donnerons le nom de logistique à la courbe

We will give the name logistic to the curve

He does not explain why he uses this term, but it is presumably by analogy with arithmetic, geometric, and in contrast to logarithmic (per text and illustration that Ed includes).

The French term logistique is from Ancient Greek λογιστικός (logistikós, “practiced in arithmetic; rational”), from λογίζομαι (logízomai, “I reason, I calculate”), from λόγος (lógos, “reason, computation”), whence English logos, logic, logarithm, etc. In Ancient Greek mathematics, logistikós was a division of mathematics: practical computation and accounting, in contrast to ἀριθμητική (arithmētikḗ), the theoretical or philosophical study of numbers. Confusingly, today we call practical computation arithmetic, and don't use logistic to refer to computation.

Verhulst first discusses the arithmetic growth and geometric growth models, referring to arithmetic progression and geometric progression, and calling the geometric growth curve a logarithmic curve (confusingly, the modern term is instead exponential curve, which is the inverse), then follows with his new model of "logistic" growth, which is presumably named by analogy, after a traditional division of mathematics, and in contrast to the logarithmic curve. The term logarithm is itself derived as log-arithm, from Ancient Greek λόγος (lógos) and ἀριθμός (arithmós), the sources respectively of logistic and arithmetic.

There is no connection with logis (lodging), though that is the source of the term logistics (1830).


The logistic distribution is not a common distribution in analysis, but it ties together the notion of a latent underlying continuous variable which is thresholded in binary outcomes. It turns out that thresholding a logistic RV (to 1 if the RV is greater than some unknown value and 0 otherwise) and calculating a maximum likelihood leads to logistic regression. Contrast this approach with thresholding a normally distributed random variable which leads to probit regression. Applying multiple thresholds leads to cumulative link models.

Now, if your question concerned logistic regression, the term was coined by David Cox in 1958 "The regression analysis of binary sequences (with discussion)" in JRRS. He used the term to the logistic, sigmoidal shape of the modeled mean. For describing the process of a curve which models probabilities that accumulate according to a probabilistically sound way, the term "logistic" is an intuitive choice and the nomenclature stuck.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think I understand your answer at all: why was the term "logistic" an intuitive choice? Because of "the logistic, sigmoidal shape"? But why would the shape be called "logistic" in the first place? $\endgroup$
    – amoeba
    Jan 29 '16 at 10:44

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