The secret life of the octothorpe: No one really knows how the word for this familiar symbol came to exist -- which is what makes its story so fascinating
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 14 June 2005)

When the impressive-sounding term "octothorpe" first swam into my consciousness, some 25 years ago, it sounded ancient, magisterial, possibly scientific. What did it mean? It could have been a stringed instrument on which long-ago Albanian peasants composed anthems to King Zog ("Young Gramoz is the sweetest damn octothorper between Fier and Vlore"). Or perhaps it was the name of a giant bird, a now-extinct raptor big enough to snatch up a small sheep. ("I was scared out of my wits, this colossal octothorpe appeared out of nowhere, swooped down, and ...")

Whatever it meant, the word obviously emerged from the mists of antiquity, shining with the patina that reflects centuries of usage.

It didn't take me long to learn that in the language of phone companies and other industries it means the symbol #, a.k.a. "the number sign" or "the pound sign." That crosshatching (two parallel lines crossing two parallel lines) has been used traditionally to mean numbers or weight or, among editors, "Insert space here." It also closely resembles the musical sign for sharp.

It was natural to assume that the term describing it should be as old as the thing itself. Imagine my disillusionment when I discovered that octothorpe-the-word is younger than I am.

According to the mammoth, no-word-left-behind version of the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest recorded sighting was in 1974, when a journal called Telephony reported: "A few months ago, a story travelled through the Bell System that the familiar symbol # at long last had a name: 'octothorp.' " Only a year later, The Vancouver Province used it, with an "e" on the end, while describing a new phone system. It was now obviously in the language, since the Province didn't feel the need to say what it meant.

But where did it come from? The answer illustrates the chancy and highly personal way the English language expands. Speaking and writing, we are forced to use tools that arrive among us without credentials or any reasonable explanation of their provenance. Our haphazard method of vocabulary-extension, utterly lacking the French Academy's rigid system of acceptance and rejection, can be as capricious as a poem, at once whimsical and unfathomable. Even modern words are hard to trace. We can understand why mystery surrounds vocabulary originating in, say, the 15th century, but you might imagine that so recent an addition to our dictionaries would be easy to explain.

Not so. We don't really know how "octothorpe" came to exist. And since we have at least three different accounts of its origin, it remains a playground for amateur and professional etymologists -- who, as usual, bring to their work a medley of rumours, theories, guesses and totally unjustified self-confidence.

The first two syllables cause no trouble. Because the sign has eight points, the word creators naturally inserted it in the linguistic family of eight, alongside many relatives, such as octagonal, octogenarian and octopus. This gives it some exotic distant cousins that reflect the origins of "oct," such as my favourite coinage, octadrachm, an eight-drachma piece of silver in ancient Greece.

All that is easy. It's the "thorpe" we can't account for. And this naturally encourages mistakes. The American Heritage Dictionary says without hesitation, as if there were no controversy here at all, that the second syllable is a tribute to James Edward Oglethorpe (1696-1785), who settled and governed the American colony of Georgia in 1732. The argument is that someone decided to pay tribute to him by creating a word that sounded rather like his last name.

That would make sense had the word appeared around 1800. But why, in the 20th century, would you bow to Oglethorpe, who is still distantly honoured in Georgia (with street names and the like) but has little in the way of national or international reputation?

The second explanation makes it seem that the word has truly antique roots. The Elements of Typographic Style (1992), by that excellent scholar-poet Robert Bringhurst, points out that "thorp" (probably derived from Norse) was for centuries an English word meaning village. In old cartography, the # sign indicates a village; you can see in it a primitive plan of eight equal-sized fields, with a village square in the middle. This might mean that people were applying the word "thorp" to the # sign for ages; it needed only the "octo" to make it sound official and authoritative. In 1996, the New Scientist endorsed this explanation.

But why would anyone use "thorp" in the 20th century? It pretty well vanished from English after the 1860s and would be known today only to those who recalled seeing it in Tennyson or Wordsworth.

The truth (or what many now consider the closest we can get to the truth) is far more eccentric. Apparently a man named Don Macpherson, working for Bell Labs in the 1960s, felt that in introducing a more complicated phone system to a client, the company needed a more distinguished word for #. My guess is that he thought "number sign" lacked scientific heft.

This is the eccentric part: According to a memo written some years later by one of Macpherson's colleagues, he was an admirer of Jim Thorpe (1888-1953), an American Indian and one of the great athletes of his time. Thorpe won medals at the 1912 Olympics in Sweden but was forced to return them when it was discovered he had spoiled his amateur status by playing baseball for money. In the 1960s, Macpherson was among those trying to right what they considered a historic wrong and get the medals sent back to the United States (which they were, eventually). Macpherson decided that this was the time to honour Thorpe while creating a classy new word.

Was that necessary? Did the world need "octothorpe"? Were we all waiting for a way to describe those four crossing lines. Of course not. We already knew them as "the pound sign," or "pound," or "the number sign." People who remember old-fashioned slang called it simply "hash," and those who liked more rococo language called it "TicTacToe." Some called it "the gate" some "the square." We had more terminology than we required.

"Octothorpe," whatever its true origin, amounts to the verbal parallel of art for art's sake. It's a word for word's sake, a word someone invented in a playful moment just because he felt like it.

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