12.0442 eight villages, a.k.a. the octothorpe!

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Sat, 20 Feb 1999 20:56:01 +0000 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 12, No. 442.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

[1] From: Chris Powell <sooty@umich.edu> (6)
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but

[2] From: Michael Fraser <mike.fraser@computing- (47)
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but

[3] From: Jack Lynch <jlynch@andromeda.rutgers.edu> (14)
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but

[4] From: Mary Ellen Foley <mef@netcom.com> (69)
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but

Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 20:50:33 +0000
From: Chris Powell <sooty@umich.edu>
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but "octothorpe"??

I'm not sure if it's generally known, but it has circled around a few
mailgroups I'm on. See

Christina Powell
Coordinator, Humanities Text Initiative
University of Michigan

Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 20:51:38 +0000
From: Michael Fraser <mike.fraser@computing-services.oxford.ac.uk>
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but "octothorpe"??

> A colleague reports hearing the "pound sign" on keypads defined as
> "octothorpe". OED knows nothing of this, or I have it mis-spelled. Is
> this expression known?

Who needs the OED when the likes of AltaVista provides us with the largest
corpus of language usage...

Whilst there seems to be general agreement that octothorp(e) refers to the
hash, pound, pound sign, number, number sign, sharp, (garden) fence,
crunch, mesh, hex, flash, grid, pig-pen, tictactoe, scratch (mark),
(garden) gate, hak, oof, rake, sink, corridor, unequal, punch mark,
crosshatch (#) (see http://taro.poi.net/unix.html), there is not
overall agreement on how this character came to be termed the octothorp in
particular. (As an aside, I hadn't realised that it was so common across
the Atlantic to refer to # as a pound sign even though it is frequently
used in British email as a *substitute* for the er, pound sign).

The page given above which lisst the names simply glosses the
term with, 'from Bell System (orig. octalthorpe)'. Further investigation
led me to the *true story* of how the term octothorpe came to be
real.story), apparently the invention of Don McPherson at Bell Labs: octo-
the the eight points and -thorpe a curious reference to Jim Thorpe whose
olympic medals McPherson was campaigning to have returned from Sweden.

However, http://www.brodynewmedia.com/Octo.html gives a quote from Robert
Bringhurst, The Elements of Typographic Style (1992) at variance with the
'real story'. The etymology of Octothorp lying in octo- for eight and
-thorp for field. Thus # represents eight fields clustered around a
central square (or village).

This last point is mentioned at http://nwalsh.com/comp.fonts/FAQ/cf_32.htm
which also notes that the # could be a development of the scribal
abbreviation for 'numerus'. However, for octothorp the author reproduces
an alternative etymology suggesting that the Old English 'thorp' for
village derives from the earlier 'treb' for dwelling, and this itself is
related to the Latin 'trabs' for beam. Thus octothorp is 'eight beams'.
Quadrathorp, the author observes, might have been more appropriate. Hmmm.

Finally, # apparently bears some similarity to the Chinese character for
'communal farm' (which I find vaguely appropriate on Humanist) and I
suspect that Nicholson Baker has something to say about it in his essay on
electronic writing symbols (and their origins) in The Size of Thoughts
(1997) but I have neither this nor the OED with me here, only the Web.

Dr Michael Fraser Email: mike.fraser@oucs.ox.ac.uk
Manager, CTI Textual Studies Fax: +44 1865 273 275
Humanities Computing Unit, OUCS Tel: +44 1865 283 343
University of Oxford
13 Banbury Road http://info.ox.ac.uk/ctitext/
Oxford OX2 6NN

Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 20:52:49 +0000
From: Jack Lynch <jlynch@andromeda.rutgers.edu>
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but "octothorpe"??

James O'Donnell writes:

A colleague reports hearing the "pound sign" on keypads defined as
"octothorpe". OED knows nothing of this, or I have it mis-spelled. Is
this expression known?

Yup. From a FAQ for alt.usage.english:

# is called "number sign" or "pound sign" in the US. This
causes confusion with the crossed-L "pound sign" for UK
currency. In the UK, it is often called "hash" (related to
hatch marks and cross-hatch). The name "octothorpe" was
coined in the 1960s by Bell Labs when that key was included
with touch tone phones. The musical sharp sign is actually
shaped significantly differently.

It's also mentioned in the famous "Jargon File,"
http://g.pet.cam.ac.uk/g/jargon/ (wth many mirrors), and _The
Hacker's Dictionary_.

Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 20:53:45 +0000
From: Mary Ellen Foley <mef@netcom.com>
Subject: Re: 12.0441 'number sign', 'hash sign', but "octothorpe"??

Jim O'Donnell sent us:
> A colleague reports hearing the "pound sign" on keypads defined as
> "octothorpe". OED knows nothing of this, or I have it mis-spelled. Is
> this expression known?

Not long ago, Willard introduced us to Michael Quinion's "World Wide
Words," a weekly e-mailed newsletter which recently mentioned
"octothorpe." I'm reprinting the relevant section here, hoping Dr.
Quinion won't mind.

I'll also add that in my previous life as a software engineer in Silicon
Valley, I have heard the mark referred to as a "hatch-cover" -- perhaps a
corruption of "cross-hatch" or "hash-mark"?

Mary Ellen Foley

----------------- begin included message ---------------------

WORLD WIDE WORDS ISSUE 128 Saturday 23 January 1999
A weekly mailing from Michael Quinion Thornbury, Bristol, UK

5. Weird Words: Octothorpe /'Qkt@UTO:Rp/
Another name for the telephone handset symbol #.

This word is just beginning to appear in the dictionaries, but
still seems mostly to be jargon of the North American telephone
business. But it is one of the few such words with a documented
history, thanks to a note that Ralph Carlsen of Bell Laboratories
wrote just before his retirement in 1995.

He records that Bell Labs introduced two special keys on the then
new touch-tone telephone handsets in the early 1960s, both of them
now standard. One of these is the symbol '*', usually known
formally as the asterisk but which Bell Labs reasonably decided to
call the 'star' key. The other was the '#' symbol. This was more
of a problem, as there are lots of names for it. In the US it is
often called the pound key, because it is used to mark numbers
related to weight, or for similar reasons the number sign, which
is also one of its internationally agreed names. Elsewhere it is
commonly called hash, but it also has lots of other names, such as
tictactoe and cross-hatch. In Britain, the Post Office, then
responsible for telecommunications, added to the plethora of names
by deciding to call it 'square', though that, too, has become an
official name internationally.

The story as told by Ralph Carlsen is that a Bell Labs engineer,
Don Macpherson, went to instruct their first client, the Mayo
Clinic, in the use of the new system. He felt the need for a fresh
and unambiguous name for the # symbol. His reasoning that led to
the new word was roughly that it had eight points, so ought to
start with 'octo-'. He was at that time active in a group that was
trying to get the Olympic medals of the athlete Jim Thorpe
returned from Sweden, so he decided to add 'thorpe' to the end.

'Thorpe' is, of course, also the Old Norse word for a hamlet,
village or farm, which is common in British place names. Another
story of its origin is that the sign was thought to look like a
group of eight fields surrounding a village. The existence of this
other story means that dictionaries usually say the word is of
disputed origin, though Mr Carlsen's note is so circumstantial and
full of detail that it is convincing.

Over the past three decades, 'octothorpe' has gradually crept into
various official publications and manuals in the North American
telecommunications system. But even so it's hardly a common word.


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