A post from Shady Characters

The Octothorpe: addenda

After I posted The Octothorpe, part 2 of 2 last weekend, New Scientist magazine’s online editor Sumit Paul-Choudhury got in touch to say:

I was surprised and delighted to discover that you had cited us in part 1 of your piece on the octothorpe (via the OED) and thought you might be interested in reading the original reference, which I have now liberated from our paywall[.]

The article is now available on the New Scientist website. It takes the form of a letter from one Kay Dekker,1 who quotes the answer to a Frequently Asked Question from the alt.usage.english newsgroup:

“Finally, in a failed attempt to avoid the naming problem by creating a new name, 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. Another story has it that a Bell Labs supervisor named Don MacPherson coined the word from the number of endpoints and from the surname of US athlete James Francis Thorpe.”2

‘MWCD10’ is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition and the dictionary’s online edition does indeed date ‘octothorpe’ to 1971.3 To summarise, then, in tracing the etymology of the word ‘octothorpe’ the Oxford English Dictionary cites a letter to New Scientist which quotes from the alt.usage.english FAQ, which ultimately cites Merriam-Webster’s own definition. The history of the octothorpe is nothing if not tortuous.

I can’t thanks Sumit Paul-Choudhury enough for making this article available online — it’s great to be able to fill in another small piece of the puzzle of the octothorpe’s name.

I’m away this coming week, so look out for The Ampersand, part 1 in two weeks’ time, on Sunday 12th June. Thanks again for all the comments!

Dekker, Kay. “Letters: Internet Hash”. New Scientist.




“Octothorpe”. In Merriam-Webster Online. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, May 2011.


7 comments on “The Octothorpe: addenda

  1. Comment posted by The Modesto Kid on

    Looking forward to the ampersand — it is one of my favorites. “and per se and” has a mantric, hypnotic quality to it. When I was teaching myself calligraphy as a kid I had a lot of fun drawing ampersand “et” as lower-case e with a hook over its tail.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi MK — I’m looking forward to writing about it too, and with a bit of luck I should have some fantastic images to go with the articles!

  2. Comment posted by Geof Huth on


    Another great job. You are the greatest of stigmeologists. One point on your upcoming entry: Although the ampersand (great etymology there) is generally treated as a punctuation mark, and I have no problem including it in this gallimaufry of yours, it is, of course, not a punctuation mark at all. It simply resembles one visually. It is more properly a grammalogue.

    Good luck, and continue with these great entertainments.


    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Geof — very true. The ampersand is indeed a grammalogue, or logogram, as is the ‘@’ symbol, which I’ll be covering later. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by Rhialto on

    Just yesterday I came across this blog, and to my amazement Kay Dekker is mentioned! Sadly, I recently heard of his death earlier this month. Reportedly, he fell asleep reading a book and never woke up…

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Rhialto,

      That’s a sad coincidence. I’m sorry to hear that.

    2. Comment posted by Aaron Davies on

      If I could choose a way to go…

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