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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(enginese, computerese | “number sign,” “cross-hatch”)

Let’s start with a home truth. This symbol, in my youth, was commonly known as a “number sign” in the U.S. That was by far the most settled, widespread way of referring to it. I don’t remember ever seeing it used to denote “pound(s),” though apparently it was. The musical kids might have called it a “sharp sign,” although the pitch symbol is tilted upward and doesn’t look quite the same. It could be called a “hash mark,” although that isn’t how I remember seeing that term used. “Hash mark” in the military meant service stripe (a patch sewn onto the sleeve of the uniform), and it’s part of a football field, where it refers to yard markers between the yard lines that run the width of the field and mark multiples of five and ten. You might call the symbol a “cross-hatch,” or possibly a “grid” (another football echo: the football field was once known as the “gridiron”). And of course, a tic-tac-toe board, for that quickest of childhood games: four lines on a piece of paper and off you go. True, a tic-tac-toe board has all right angles, unlike the slanted lines necessary for the number sign or sharp sign.

The common name for this symbol has changed twice in the last thirty years, which is unusual, even striking. “@” has been revived by the onset of e-mail and then Twitter, but it is still generally referred to as the “at-symbol” or just “at,” as far as I know. (But who knows what our young, fast fellow citizens call it now?) “Star” has gained a lot of ground on “asterisk,” but it was common to call an asterisk a star before the dawn of the computer age, and “asterisk” has remained ordinary, partly due to its common use in discussions of baseball statistics. Typographical symbols, punctuation marks, oh, they may have more than one name, but four or five? No, “#” seems uniquely blessed in that department.

Some recent writers have erred on the side of credulity by citing “octotherp” (or “octothorpe”) as the proper technical term for this symbol. There are several versions of the story on-line. Bell Telephone introduced Touch-Tone dialing in 1963, but the pound key and star key did not appear until 1968. The engineers didn’t know what to call it — some say that it was called “pound sign” from the beginning, but evidence either way is sparse — and some of them began referring to it as “octotherp” (“therp” being a nonsense syllable) or “octothorpe” (in honor of Jim Thorpe). That may be what the guys down at the engineers’ lodge called it on wild Friday nights, but no one else ever uttered such a word until the internet — able to spread more misinformation faster than any previous medium — came along.

Our no longer new friend, the “pound sign,” seems to have entered our vocabulary around 1990 (I don’t remember when I first encountered it, but that sounds about right) in reference to the telephone keypad. You can find many elaborate explanations on-line of the “lb” glyph with a ligature evolving into the “pound” sign. Maybe so. As noted above, I don’t recall ever seeing “#” used that way until people started trying to figure out why the hell we were all calling it the pound sign all of a sudden. I would love to see some old photos, or movies, that showed an actual use of the symbol to stand for “lb.” Not that there any more convincing explanations out there. A few brave souls try to derive it from the L-shaped symbol for British currency, but that seems less likely still. (For the most comprehensive exposition of the pound sign mystery, try the ever-reliable Language Log.) Thanks mainly to endless recorded instructions played over the telephone, we all learned the new name in short order, and it was even starting to worm its way into non-telephonic fields, when along came Twitter.

The new social media service was looking for a simple way for people to express common interests and form groups; in 2007 Chris Messina proposed using the pound sign as a prefix to allow easy searches for tags. The idea took off, and now “hashtag” is used even in spoken conversation. “Hash” is an older computerese term, and the “pound sign” has been called the “hash key” (presumably a corruption of “hatch”) for years in Britain. “Tag” was and remains a blogger’s term for a subject heading, a term appended to a post to make it easier to find with a search engine. So “hashtag” was ripe for the plucking, and “#” grew yet another name. While “pound sign” still rules telephony after 25 years, “hashtag” is moving beyond Twitter and teenage conversation. The fact of the matter is that outside of telephones and Twitter, we seldom have occasion to refer to “#” and therefore probably don’t really need a general term, much less two or five. Well, not five, now that “number sign” is extinct. A humble old name for a once-humble symbol, pushed aside by the usual suspect, aggressive technological change.

If Twitter remains part of everyone’s everyday life, it’s quite possible that “#” will remain “hashtag,” shed its other names, and settle into respectability. Maybe it’s another symbol’s turn to develop a promiscuous side. I nominate the caret (shift-6), to be renamed (at first) the “hat sign,” indicating one’s preference in headwear, as in “^fedora” or “^tarboosh.” #anotherbreedofhat

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