What most people know as the hash or pound symbol is in fact called the octothorpe. The punctuation mark previously best known for its place on touch tone phones has had a renaissance over the past few years thanks to twitter. But where did the octothorpe come from, and what’s with the name?
Robert Fulford has some answers:
It was born somewhere in the Bell system in the 1970s, when touchtone became established. The first half of the name was easy, though rich in cultural reference. Since the # has eight points the name fell within the order of eight, where an eight-sided figure is an octagon, a sea creature with eight suckered arms is an octopus, eight notes are an octave and octopush (an underwater game played by two teams of scuba divers pushing a lead puck on the bottom of a swimming pool) originally had eight players a side.
And where did “thorpe” come from? The American Heritage Dictionary says it honours James Edward Oglethorpe, the 18th-century British general who helped found the colony of Georgia in 1732. A more popular story has an engineer at Bell Labs deciding to honour Jim Thorpe, an Indian athlete who won the pentathlon and decathlon for the U.S. at the 1912 Olympics; he had his gold medals taken from him when his background as a professional athlete was disclosed, a decision that was reversed three decades after his death.
So there you have it. Of course, no one actually calls it an octothorpe anymore, but it’s nice to know the correct name.
So if you ever have some extra space at the end of a tweet, why not use it up with a nice #octothorpe? You’ll be totally cool and ironic, and you just might draw some attention to an aging punctuation mark.