The Origins of the Octothorpe

5 mins

The ideas for my writing come from the strangest of places. This one began when I was searching for the syntactically correct way to comment out a block of code in Python. I came across this Stack Overflow link, which mentioned everything I expected it would, until I came across the following witty discussion on the # symbol. 

Actually, that symbol is called an octothorp (referring to #). Please stop using local slang terms — few Americans call it a hash, and few non-Americans call it a pound, but nobody ever refers to anything else when they say octothorp. Except the person who chooses to defy this definitive answer by using it to mean something else. — @ArtOfWarfare

That escalated quickly. The debate had shifted from programming syntactic sugar to etymology. Stack Overflow can indeed be quite entertaining when you’ve been staring at code all day. What really got me interested in this topic, however, was this guy’s reply.

@ArtOfWarfare is correct, ‘#’ is an octothorpe. And ‘*’ is a hexathorpe, ‘+’ is a quadrathorpe, and ‘-’ is a duothorpe. Philosophical question: what is a thorpe? — @Pierre

Which led me to question, where does the symbol really come from? And what in the world is a thorpe?

What’s an Octo-thorpe?

Well, nobody can agree for sure where the term came from, but ancient cartography seems to suggest that octothorpe is in fact the combination of two terms — octo and thorp (this explanation was later endorsed by the New Scientist). Octo simply refers to eight and thorp is an Old English word for village, probably because the symbol looks like a village square surrounded by eight equally sized fields. It was first coined in the early 1960s by an employee of Bell Laboratories, Don Macpherson, who thought that the company needed a more scientific term for the symbol when it was trying to sell a more complicated phone system to the client. 

Another theory suggests that the word was created as a practical joke on a friend, and others point its origin to somewhat of an inside joke amongst telephone engineers of the 1960s. (All I can say is that if this is true, the telephone engineers of the sixties used to be easily humored.)

If you thought this was confusing, just wait — it gets worse.

I’ll Have a Pound, Please

What makes the history of this symbol even more perplexing is the fact that people from different parts of the world have different names for it depending on the context in which it is used. Put it before a numerical digit in America, and it refers to a number (#2 pencil). Put it after, and it’s a pound (50# or 50 pounds).

In regions like the United Kingdom and Ireland, the symbol has a completely different meaning. It’s not used to denote weight — its called a hash. Pound instead refers to the pound sterling currency, denoted by the £ symbol. To make matters worse, the representation of 0x23 is £ in the UK character set and # in the US one — nightmares galore for programmers around the world. 

In Asia, it’s a completely different ball game. The Chinese know it as the cross. The Japanese call it the sharp. Phone into an automated service in Singapore or Malaysia, and you hear the familiar (or not, depending on where you’re from) “Please enter your phone number followed by the hex key”. 

Let’s not even get into the symbol’s usage in the realm of mathematics or programming — the list could go on forever.

One Hashtag to Rule Them All

Today, we see the symbol all over the internet, but surprisingly not used in any of the ways I’ve mentioned above. Instead, it is the new face of social media — the hashtag.

Every second, 500 million tweets are fired up from all corners of the globe, signifying anything from estatic fandom over Justin Bieber, to emotional support for the Black Lives Matter movement. These hashtags serve to mobilize groups of people who believe in a common cause. It brings together individuals from all walks of life and from different backgrounds and cultures to rally, to cheer, to protest. 

The symbol is redefining every facet of our lives. During a soccer match, you can see tweets pouring in faster than you can read them, all under the domain of a single hashtag, and consisting of different languages and opinions. When a natural disaster strikes, the latest updates can be found through hashtags rather than from news channels. 

At the same time, the symbol is also the face of modern consumerism. On Instagram, the hashtag determines the popularity of the post to the extent that there are books and businesses that advise you on which ones to use in order to boost your followers and gain more likes on your post. Companies understand the power of social media, and use the hashtag to drive their brands forward. Marketing and advertising don’t follow a one way street anymore, they’re right in the middle of a complex web of intersecting roads. By empowering customers through social media, they’ve made the consumer the marketer — and that is an extremely powerful strategy.

Today, the octothorpe has become the international empowerment symbol, a single character that signifies power, moblization and rebellion. It’s interesting how the nature of a single character, four strokes of a pen, can change so much over time. It’s almost ironic that forty years ago, Macpherson coined the term as a marketing tactic for a phone system, and today the symbol it signifies drives multi-million dollar marketing campaigns. 

What’s equally interesting, though, is how such an insightful discussion can arise from browsing through Stack Overflow on a foggy Friday afternoon in San Francisco, looking for the answer to a completely unrelated question. I guess you do find the most interesting things in the strangest places. 

A Word for Word’s Sake

The octothorpe, pound, hash, hex, hashtag — whatever you may choose to call it — has gone through a cataclysm of change over time, but noone sums up the the entire saga better than Canadian journalist Robert Fulford. Referring to the octothorpe, he writes:

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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