Octothorpe origins

Subject: Octothorpe origins
From: Patty Ewy <pewy -at- ICONTROL -dot- ANZA -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 15 Aug 1996 13:40:53 -0600

Hey Misti--

I have a copy of Webster's Dictionary of Word Origins. Regarding "octothorpe," it
says:

octothorpe This recent word refers to the symbol #, especially as found on
pushbutton phones. First appearing in the mid-1960s, the term seems to have
sprung up among telephone engineers.

Any such strange-looking work as this one inevitably excites the ingenuity of
amateur etymologists. The octo- part would normally mean 'eight', and the
symbol has eight points on the periphery. So far so good. But the -thorp part is
not a Greek or Latin ending, as you would expect given the prefix, nor does it
make sense as an independent English word. There is a somewhat rare word
*thorp*, meaning 'village', but that will not work here.

Enter the etymological irregulars. A tale you will sometiems hear concerns a
man Thorpe who had eight children and ... The story's plausibility goes down from
there. But it represents one of the commonest types of popular explanation, the
eponymous etymology.

Two points militate against the theory of origin in this touching parental scene,
apart from general plausibility. First, it has no connection with telephone
engineering. Second, the earliest form of the word seems to have been
octotherp, which may then have been modified by vague association with the
aforementioned English word, through CONTAMINATION (which see). How
octotherp was coined is still a mystery, though we are told by a correspondent
from the engineering community that it was coined as a lark, octo- for 'eight' as
previously mentioned, and -therp when somebody burped. Such a tall-sounding
tale is not entirely out of the question, given the arbitrariness of some modern
scientific coinages. Gas, radar, mho, livetin, athodyd, and ellagic acid were all
coined using non-classical procedures such as acronymy and anagrams: and some
recent coinages have a decidedly humorous side to them: byte, googol, therblig
and quark.

Octothorpe still has not take the country by storm. Its extent of use was for
many years restricted enough that it was entered in the Addenda Section of
Webster's Third New International Dictionary until 1986. The # sign is still
know by a wide variety of other names. Among them are number sign, pound sign,
space mark, sharp, crosshatch, hashmark, hachure, tic-tac-toe slashes, and from
computer hackers' slang crunch and splat (the latter term sometimes is also
used for asterisk).

[end quote]

Hope this helps.

Patty Ewy
pewy -at- icontrol -dot- anza -dot- com

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