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More and more people have begun calling this symbol the octothorpe; what is its more common name?

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Answer: the pound sign (#)

According to : the word octothorpe was probably coined as a "humorous blend" of octaland the name Oglethorpe (James Edward).

Could it be that a dictionary is mistaken! According to Ralph Carlsen (a retired 34-year employee at Bell Labs), the history of the pound sign and the word octothorpe is as follows:

For the sake of link persistence (and because it is a great example of how a word can be created and propagated), I have quoted Carlsen's info in full. The original can be found at:

The Real Source of the Word Octothorpe

First, where did the symbols * and # come from?

In about 1961 when DTMF dials were still in development, two Bell Labs guys in data communications engineering (Link Rice and Jack Soderberg) toured the USA talking to people who were thinking about telephone access to computers.

They asked about possible applications, and what symbols should be used on two keys that would be used exclusively for data applications. The primary result was that the symbols should be something available on all standard typewriter keyboards. The * and # were selected as a result of this study, and people did not expect to use those keys for voice services. The Bell System in those days did not look internationally to see if this was a good choice for foreign countries.

Then in the early 1960s Bell Labs developed the 101 ESS (Electronic Switching System, a pioneer electronic exchange) which was the first stored program controlled switching system (it was a PBX). One of the first installations was at the Mayo Clinic. This PBX had lots of modern features (Call Forwarding, Speed Calling, Directed Call Pickup, etc.), some of which were activated by using the # sign.

A Bell Labs supervisor DON MACPHERSON went to the Mayo Clinic just before cut-over to train the doctors and staff on how to use the new features on this state of the art switching system. During one of his lectures he felt the need to come up with a word to describe the # symbol. Don also liked to add humour to his work. His thought process - which took place while at the Mayo Clinic doing lectures - was as follows:

There are eight points on the symbol so octo should be part of the name.

We need a few more letters or another syllable to make a noun, so what should that be?

(Don MacPherson, at this point in his life, was active in a group that was trying to get JIM THORPE's Olympic medals returned from Sweden)

The term thorpe would be unique, and people would not suspect he was making the word up if he called it an octothorpe.

So Don Macpherson began using the term Octothorpe to describe the # symbol in his lectures. When he returned to Bell Labs in Holmdel NJ, he told us what he had done, and began using the term octothorpe in memos and letters.

The term was picked up by other Bell Labs people and used mostly for the fun of it. Some of the documents which used the term octothorpe found their way to Bell Operating Companies and other public places. Over the years, Don and I have enjoyed seeing the term octothorpe appear in documents from many different sources.

Don MacPherson retired about eight years ago, and I will be retiring in about six weeks. These are, of course, my remembrances and are not any official statement of AT&T or the subsequent companies.

Please note that these are draft questions for the board game MooT.
If you spot an error or disagree with anything I've said here,
please let me know and I'll fix it.
(the Mootguy)


This symbol is generally referred to as 'hash' in the UK, but I have heard it called 'square'

So, what is a 'hash'?

You might like to consider that the pound sign is already shown as a crossed L, for currency, and an lb for weight.

While we are about it the word 'thorpe' is an old English word of scandinavian origin. Originally it meant farmstead or settlement (I think) and is the name, or part of the name of, several English towns and villages.

Once again our friends in the United States decide that their ignorance is better than our knowledge. Certainly not a word to be promoted... octothorpe indeed.

It is also known as a "number sign", since it stands for the word number in such places as in "apartment #2". It is referred to as a pound sign because it was in some American commerce usage (back in the longhand days) to stand for the unit of weight ("25# flour ^@&15æ#x201A;¢/#").

Beg to differ! I have an entirely different account of the origin of octothorp (no "e") courtesy of typographer Robert Bringhurst:

"OCTOTHORP: Otherwise known as the numeral sign. It has also been used as the symbol for the pound avoirdupois, but this usage is now archaic. 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."

Source: Robert Bringhurst, "The Elements of Typographic Style", ISBN 0-88179-033-8, p. 224)

I suspect Messrs. Carlsen and MacPherson just may have been having a little pre-retirement fun at our expense. :-)

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