rob waller

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Octothorpe (you know what I mean)

A colleague’s been debating with a mobile phone company client how to refer to an old-fashioned steam telephone. They want to choose from ‘fixed line’ and ‘land line’, with a preference for the former. She asked for votes from users and ‘land line’ won by a mile. Needless to say, the client wants ‘fixed line’. Actually, a lot of people said ‘none of the above’ and generally refer to ‘home phone’ instead.

This reminds me of a debate we had with BT a long time back, over what to call the # key when it needs to be spoken out loud in voice menus. The international telecommunications standard specifies ‘square’ and BT insist on using that to this day. The debate even went to their usability lab in Martlesham, who backed 'square' ... hmm. We believe 'square' could be there because the standard was translated from another language and the term with it. We went out in the street with a phone and as you would expect, no one called that key ‘square’. A lot didn’t know what to call it, but if they had a name it was generally called ‘hash’. Musicians called it the sharp sign, and someone with computing training called it ‘gate’. In the US it is more generally called the ‘pound sign’ or ‘number sign’. There is an good Wikipedia entry with further names under the headword Number sign.

The most bizarre name for the # sign is Octothorpe. This apparently first appeared in the 60s or 70s, but there is disagreement about its origin. In Elements of Typographic Style (p. 282), Robert Bringhurst says that ‘in cartography, it is also a symbol for village: eight fields around a central square, and this is the source of its name. Octothorp means eight fields.’

Really? Type ‘octothorpe’ and ‘cartography’ into Google and all you get is dictionary definitions quoting Robert Bringhurst – nothing from a cartography source.

Another explanation is given by a retired AT&T engineer, Ralph Carlsen, that he and a colleague made it up, when they needed a word for the # key when developing touchtone phones.

I turn out not be the only person puzzled by this bizarre word. Here are just a couple of the various websites chasing its origin:

Octothorpe is a truly bizarre phenomenon – a word that is never ever used for its notional meaning (ie, to refer to a telephone key), that has no real purpose or nuance to add, but that is in the OED (citing the daft ‘fields’ origin as a possibility), and whose origin is much discussed. At least one web dictionary I found claimed that there are variant spellings such as 'Octotherp', as if linguists had toured the country asking gnarled old telephone engineers for the terms that they and their forefathers had used for generations.

So my plan is to invent a new word for something, and get it in the OED. Any ideas?

More seriously, when you research something like this, it reveals the true limitations of the web – with its apparently authoritative websites packed with cut and paste repetitions of unsubstantiated information.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I am researching a book on typography, and Bringhurst's strong assertion of this name for the number sign sort of stuck in my craw. I started my research in my own books, then OED, and finally decided to put in cartography, octothorp just as you note. I got to you first! Thanks a bunch.
    For a similar wild ride, look up the origin of Lorem Ipsum. Same bizarre, windy road to a very similar place - pretty funny.

  2. Anonymous2:53 pm

    I once got the word rurale into print (analogy with urbane) but don't know whether it made the OED.


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