Simanaitis Says

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CELEBRATING #, THE OCTOTHORPE

TO THOSE with pre-Internet origins (yes, many of us are still living…), the symbol # might stands for number, as in a #2 pencil, or perhaps pounds, as in a 3# hen.

To those who remember rotary phones (granted, my sample size grows smaller), the symbol # came as a novelty on the Touch-Tone phone. The modern phone’s 3 x 4 array places 0 in the bottom row between *, the asterisk, and #, the octothorpe.

Touch-Tone telephone, c. mid-1960s.

The octothorpe‽‽ Don’t you mean the “hashtag?”

Yes, that too.

As we shall see here today, the octothorpe’s origins are straightforward enough. How it got the name “octothorpe,” though, depends on who’s telling the tale.

My primary source is Keith Houston’s entertaining and illuminating book Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks. He sure gave us straight talk on ”‽,” the interrobang.

Origins of # trace back to Latin weights and measures, libra and pondo. We’re all familiar with Libra, the scales, and pounds.

Houston writes that “Sometime in the late fourteenth century the abbreviation “lb” for libra entered English….” What’s more, scribes fancied it up with a horizontal line called a “tittle” or “tilde,” whence our modern “~.”

The lb abbreviation as it appeared in printed form in J.C. Barchusen’s Pyrosophia, 1698. Image from Shady Characters.

If you scribble ℔ a bit, it ends up looking like the following.

How Sir Isaac Newton wrote ℔. Image from Shady Characters.

Houston observes, “Despite boasting Latin roots of noble purpose, the # symbol is now used so promiscuously as to be completely dependent on its context.” He cites its use in everything from chess notation (#, checkmate) to proofreading (#, insert space here). And, of course, #, hash mark, which, according to Wikipedia, is originally Brit usage, often for ordinal number.

How # got its octothorpe name is rather more clouded in supposition. I like a conjecture in the Oxford Dictionary of the English Language that # represents eight (“octo”) fields around a village square (“thorpe” is Old English for village).

This even has an automotive tie-in: The Fairthorpe was a bizarre Brit marque, available between 1954 and 1978 in kit or assembled form. Among its models were the Atom (44 of them), Atomota (production unknown), and Electron (perhaps 30).

Above, Fairthorpe Atom, 1954–1957, glass-fiber body, motorcycle power. Below, Fairthorpe Electron, 1956–1965, glass-fiber body, Coventry-Climax power. Images from A-Z of Cars: 1945-1970 (Classic and Sportscar), by Michael Sedgwick and Mark Gillies, Bay View, 1987.


Matters would end here, were it not for Bell Laboratories and its transition from rotary dialing telephones to DTMF (dual-tone multi-frequency) aka Touch-Tone in the mid-1960s.

One conjecture based on Bell Lab lore is that the # symbol was first called the octatherp, almost in jest. Another suggests that “thorpe” honors Jim Thorpe, Native American athlete who starred in the 1912 Olympic Games, only to lose his medals because of a trivial bit of professional play early in his life.

James Francis Thorpe, 1887–1953, Native American athlete, 1912 Olympics gold medalist, medals restored by IOC in 1983.

Houston cites another suggestion, this one appearing in the American Heritage Dictionary, fourth edition: It honors James Edward Oglethorpe, who founded Savannah in 1773 as a refuge for Brits in debtors’ prisons. While this may appeal to some in explaining present Georgia politics, I’m not buying it.

James Edward Oglethorpe, 1696–1785, British soldier, Member of Parliament, philanthropist, active in penal reform, and founder of the Georgia colony.

Houston says, “Without the Touch-Tone telephone, there is every chance that # would have labored on in obscurity; instead, with 85 percent of the world’s population owning a cell phone, the humdrum octothorpe is familiar to billions….”

“More recently,” he continues, “with the adoption of the octothorpe by the social messaging service Twitter to identify “hashtags”—terms used to group messages together according to common themes—the spotlight has returned to the #.”

And I’m sticking with my eight-sided village square. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2017

2 comments on “CELEBRATING #, THE OCTOTHORPE

  1. jlalbrecht64
    November 9, 2017

    TIL! Exceedingly obscure and interesting today!

  2. sabresoftware
    November 10, 2017

    From Dictionary.com

    a hamlet; village.
    Origin: before 900; Middle English, Old English; cognate with German Dorf, Old Norse thorp village, Gothic thaurp field

    The Gothic definition would certainly support the fields around a Village concept.

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