The Versatile Octothorpe

octothorpeNot being a tweeter, I rarely think about the octothorpe, now known more commonly as a hashtag. I do mark students’ papers by hand, though, and one thing I tend to insert — when no one is spelled as one word, or when a fictional story leaps from one block of time or point of view to another — is a mark for space, indicated by #. Then, just yesterday, I had to submit a prescription number over to the phone to my local pharmacy and was instructed to press pound when I was done.

Hashtag. Pound sign. Space. And then there’s the use of the octothorpe to replace the word number, as in “He was #4 in the queue.” How did those little cross-hatched horizontal and vertical lines come to mean so many different things?


Newton’s handwritten libra pondo sign.

Apparently it begins, like so much else, with the Romans, whose abbreviation for libra pondo, or pound weight, was (as it still is) lb, but with a stylized l including a finishing, cursive-like slash across the center, to distinguish it from the number 1. By 1850, bookkeepers had adopted two uses of the octothorpe: If it followed a number, it retained the sense of pounds, but if it preceded a number, it simply indicated number. For a long while, the octothorpe was a handwriting shortcut; it didn’t appear on keyboards until the late 19th century, and wasn’t called the pound sign until the 1930s. (For that, you had £, meaning British pounds, or lb. for avoirdupois weight.)

So how do we get to hashtag? And while we’re at it, who ever heard of octothorpe?

Well, for centuries artists have used cross-hatching, the drawing and intersecting of various series of close parallel lines — think the engravings of Albrecht Dürer. The word hatch devolves into hash, which is what this sign is still called in much of the former British Commonwealth. Then along comes a guy named Chris Messina, a Google developer who had the idea of using a sign as a way to bring together people who were discussing the same topic online. He chose the octothorpe because it was already handy on his phone. Why was it (along with the star sign, or *), on the phone? Well, Greek alpha and omega were originally introduced for the extra spaces on the rectangular keypad with which we’re all now familiar, even when we’re told to “dial” a number. But a Bell Labs specialist decided those were too arcane for most touchpad users, and he opted instead for symbols that, by then, were ubiquitous on typewriter and computer keyboards and could be used for special functions.

My favorite, though, is the word with which I began this examination: octothorpe. As always happens when I’ve recently learned a word, I like to use it all the time. Clearly the octo- prefix refers to the eight points create by the sign, so at first I thought octothorpe was the ancient Greek name, so much more satisfactory than the term “@,” which we unpoetically call “the at sign.” Sadly, no. It was coined sometime in the 1960s, again by an employee, possibly Don Macpherson, at Bell Labs, but the exact origin remains a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its chief explanation as Macpherson’s involvement with a group attempting to get Jim Thorpe’s Olympic medals returned from Sweden; the thorpe was then an homage of sort to the Olympic runner. But a Bell engineer testifies in The Merriam-Webster New Book of Word History that the original word was octotherp, and it was kind of a joke. Another source in the OED alleges that “‘thorp’ was an Old English word for village: apparently the sign was playfully construed as eight fields surrounding a village.” Thorp is indeed an archaic term for a village, though I’m not confident that the engineers at Bell Labs knew that. But if they did, they were mighty prescient. The hashtag, after all, is like the shingles hanging from the virtual pentices of our global village. Come ye here to talk about #MelaniaTrump, gather ye over there for #womancard.

Finally, let us not forget the many uses of the octothorpe (which I’ve now written eight times!) in emoticon creation. How else could you picture a smiling person in a fur hat?



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