Twitter Saves the Octothorpe

No matter what you think of social networking, Twitter has rescued # from neat extinction, according to a Guardian article.

“We haven’t seen a typographical resurrection like it since the @, an obscure accounting symbol meaning "at the rate of”, was pressed into service to form the first email address in 1971,“ the article begins. Known correctly as the octothorpe, the symbol is "generally known as "hash” [while]… in America they call it a pound sign, because it’s sometimes used to denote weight in pounds. Elsewhere it’s called a number sign (because #3, or “alt+3+3” in my case, means number three) or a ‘hex’."

But Tweeps know it as part of a hashtag, which is used to denote a subject that others may want to group their tweets around. According to World Wide Words, the octothorpe was used the symbol in the 1960s by Bell Laboratories who “were working on ways to interface telephones to computers and invented what is now called touch-tone dialling.”

The second part of the word is believed to be named for Native American athlete Jim Thorpe who had won gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics. Thorpe’s medals were taken from him because he was once paid to play professional baseball and it may be that a Bell employee with a sense of justice wanted to keep the protest going by using his name in typography. While it may only be a story, it’s more interesting than the American Heritage Dictionary’s explanation that it was named for James Edward Oglethorpe, British general who founded the colony of Georgia in 1732.

But as the Guardian article, observes, the keyboard has several other endangered species, “among them §, which is used to denote "section”, the ¶ (or pilcrow, for “paragraph”) and the dagger , used for footnotes when the asterisk has already been deployed". We’re hoping the octothorpe brings a resurgence in symbols that brings with it the interrobang (a combination of a question and exclamation mark for when you’re alarmingly curious) and the backwards question mark used to indicate irony.