The gradient of the function is always perpendicular to the contour lines. When the lines are close together the magnitude of the gradient is large: the variation is steep. A level set is a generalization of a contour line for functions of any number of variables.
Contour lines are curved, straight or a mixture of both lines on a map describing the intersection of a real or hypothetical surface with one or more horizontal planes. The configuration of these contours allows map readers to infer relative gradient of a parameter and estimate that parameter at specific places. Contour lines may be either traced on a visible three-dimensional model of the surface, as when a photogrammetrist viewing a stereo-model plots elevation contours, or interpolated from estimated surface elevations, as when a computer program threads contours through a network of observation points of area centroids. In the latter case, the method of interpolation affects the reliability of individual isolines and their portrayal of slope, pits and peaks.
Contour lines are often given specific names beginning "iso-" (Ancient Greek: ἴσος, translit. isos, lit. 'equal') according to the nature of the variable being mapped, although in many usages the phrase "contour line" is most commonly used. Specific names are most common in meteorology, where multiple maps with different variables may be viewed simultaneously. The prefix "iso-" can be replaced with "isallo-" to specify a contour line connecting points where a variable changes at the same rate during a given time period.
The words isoline and isarithm (ἀριθμός arithmos "number") are general terms covering all types of contour line. The word isogram (γράμμα gramma "writing or drawing") was proposed by Francis Galton in 1889 as a convenient generic designation for lines indicating equality of some physical condition or quantity; but it commonly refers to a word without a repeated letter.