RE: Labels on forms: Abbreviate or use symbols?

Subject: RE: Labels on forms: Abbreviate or use symbols?
From: Fred Ridder <docudoc -at- hotmail -dot- com>
To: Al Geist <al -dot- geist -at- geistassociates -dot- com>, <leonard -dot- porrello -at- soleratec -dot- com>, <cmagadieu -at- gmail -dot- com>, <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 18 Feb 2010 13:52:18 -0500

Al Geist wrote:

> To follow what Leonard was saying....the number sign "#" we all use is
> really called an "octothorpe."

Well, both "we all use" and "really called" kind of overstate things, I think.

Outside of North America, the symbol in question is *not* widely used as a substitute for "number". In most countries with languages with Latin roots, the "number sign" is some variation on the "numero sign", which typically uses a capital N and a superscripted, underlined O. (In a Unicode font this is code point U+2116.)

And as to "octothorpe", according to the American Heritage Dictionary (as cited on, the term was invented at Bell Labs in the 1960s. According to Wikipedia "Beginning in the 1960s, telephone engineers have attempted to coin a special name for this symbol, with variant spellings including octothorp, octothorpe, octathorp, and octatherp. None has become universal or widely accepted."

Calling the symbol "number sign" just underscores why Bell Labs felt the need to invent a new word. How would most people in the early days of Touch-Tone telephones have reacted to an instruction to "press the number sign key" (or worse yet, just "press the number key") on a telephone keypad which has ten keys with actual numbers on them and only one with a number *sign*. But instead of adopting the Bell Labs word, most telephone users and operators in the US used the word that referred to an earlier use of the symbol, which was for pounds of weight, e.g. "a 10# sack of potatos". In Canadian telephone systems, the symbol is referred to as the "number sign" and some phone systems have a configuration option for Canadian pronuciation of prompts (e.g. "number sign" and "zed") instead of US pronunciation ("pound" and "zee".) And one big advantage of "pound" over either "number sign" or "octothorpe" is that it is a single syllable.

> However, it's a lot easier to say "number
> sign," unless you're deep in the middle of a trivia game and you're
> loosing....

And for some real trivia, how about the fact that pressing Shift+3 on a computer keyboard will get you a "pound sign" whether you are using a US keyboard (in which case you get a #) or a UK keyboard (in which case you'll get a £).

-Fred Ridder


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RE: Labels on forms: Abbreviate or use symbols?: From: Leonard C. Porrello
RE: Labels on forms: Abbreviate or use symbols?: From: Al Geist

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