10

# is an octothorpe

* is a hexathorpe

+ a quadrathorpe

- a duothorpe

but What is a thorpe???

This question came from an argument in comments on stackoverflow that started over an American calling a # a pound sign.

  • 1
    From your other definitions, I guess it would be a line with one end missing. – Brian Hooper Aug 12 '14 at 15:58
  • 1
    From OxfordDictionariesOnline: octothorpe 1970s: of uncertain origin; probably from octo- (referring to the eight points on the symbol) + the surname Thorpe. You can also look up thorpe = village or hamlet in that same dictionary, but that obsolete word probably has no relevance to your question. – FumbleFingers Aug 12 '14 at 16:00
  • 2
    The # originally was the pound sign. It seems to have started out in the U.S. as a handwritten (never printed) variant of ℔ (lb with a slash through it), somehow been incorporated into American typewriters, and then also used as an abbreviation for number. It was then put on the telephone keypads, then computer keyboards, and from these it spread internationally. I believe only Americans ever used it to stand for pounds (weight, not currency). Somebody at AT&T (remember telephone keypads above) coined the name "octothorp". Nobody now remembers why. – Peter Shor Aug 12 '14 at 18:17
  • 3
    @Okuma.Tony, I'm sorry to say I cannot. But you can avoid terminological difficulties of this sort by using an older programming language, in which these characters are called mesh, splat, intersection and worm. – Brian Hooper Aug 15 '14 at 7:28
  • 1
    @BrianHooper Priceless. I just skimmed the whole manual. I'm printing that and posting it at work. – Still.Tony Aug 15 '14 at 14:51
5

Thorpe

The -thorpe comes from octothorpe. Its origins are unknown. The other words are rare and likely variations after octothorpe.

Octothorpe

The OED says of octothorpe:

The term was reportedly coined in the early 1960s by Don Macpherson, an employee of Bell Laboratories:

1996 Telecom Heritage No. 28. 53 His thought process 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... (Don Macpherson..was active in a group that was trying to get Jim Thorpe's Olympic medals returned from Sweden). The phrase thorpe would be unique.

For an alternative explanation see quot. 1996; in a variant of this explanation, the word is explained as arising from the use of the symbol in cartography to represent a village.

For a different explanation from a former employee of Bell Laboratories, arguing that the word is a completely arbitrary formation (and that it originally had the form octatherp) see D. A. Kerr ‘The ASCII Character Octatherp’ in http://doug.kerr.home.att.net (2006).

Quot. 1996 is:

1996 New Scientist 30 Mar. 54/3 The term ‘octothorp(e)’ (which MWCD10 dates 1971) was invented for ‘#’, allegedly by Bell Labs engineers when touch-tone telephones were introduced in the mid-1960s. ‘Octo-’ means eight, and ‘thorp’ was an Old English word for village: apparently the sign was playfully construed as eight fields surrounding a village.

Hexathorpe, quadrathorpe and duothorpe

Hexathorpe, quadrathorpe and duothorpe don't appear in the OED and I suspect they're variations after octothorpe. They also don't figure in this Google Ngrams chart and a quick search of Usenet shows they're usually mentioned in reference to the octothorpe.

  • The octothorpe (the character, not necessarily the name) certainly dates no later than 1963, as it was present in very early versions of the ASCII standard for character encoding. – Hot Licks Aug 16 '16 at 0:31
  • 1
    @HotLicks... 1963? Pfui! Remington typewriter, 1886. – GEdgar Aug 16 '16 at 0:45
  • 3
    AT&T's Kerr's document is archived at web.archive.org/web/20081221092652/http://… . It explains that it was purely a practical joke, and laughs at the "thorp"/"therp" Old-English/Old-German theory that came afterwards. – hmijail Jan 18 '17 at 22:39
1

Wikitionary specifically says the etymology of octothorpe is unclear and disputed, but one contender is:

In cartography, the octothorp (#) is a traditional symbol for village: eight fields around a central square.

From octo- (“eight”) and thorpe (“field, hamlet or small village”).

That is the source of its name. Octothorp means eight fields.

Which is as plausible as any of the other candidate etymologies, and more satisfying (the others being intentional, and uninteresting, jocular coinages).

  • 3
    I think that's a "folk etymology" - it's the sort of thing people would like to believe, so it'll appear in things like Wiktionary. But it's not even mentioned by OED (who also agree it's "etymology uncertain", but they suggest "the surname Thorpe"). I really can't see how such an obscure obsolete aspect of cartography could be relevant to a 1970s coinage which specifically arose in the context of hi-tech stuff like telephone keypads and computer programming symbol sets. – FumbleFingers Aug 12 '14 at 16:07
  • 1
    Yeah, who could imagine [nerds who are obsessed with computers][stackoverflow.com] also really being into [weird old words][english.stackexchange.com]? :) Kidding aside, I think the real answer here is "no one knows"; I'm just rooting for the most interesting etymology. – Dan Bron Aug 12 '14 at 16:08
  • 1
    Perhaps we have different ideas as to what as plausible as any of the other candidate etymologies means. To me, if OED say it's "uncertain", but only list one of the possibilities, my natural inclination is to assume the one they listed is the one they think is most likely to be true. And since they know more about such things than me, I'm happy to say their suggestion is by definition the "most plausible". – FumbleFingers Aug 12 '14 at 16:45
  • 5
    This is the only plausible etymology I've ever seen. It was originally a practical joke. Why wasn't this known 40 years earlier? Consider: If you'd played a practical joke at work that got out of hand and resulted in a ridiculous-sounding word being added to the OED, would you tell your supervisors? – Peter Shor Aug 12 '14 at 18:33
  • 1
    @peter: Yes, that was linked from the Wiktionary entry; I didn't choose it because it wasn't treated with any particular distinction in that source. But since you went to the trouble of finding the memoirs themselves, if post it as an answer, I'll give you a +1. – Dan Bron Aug 12 '14 at 18:44

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.