A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 56: an octothorpean Christmas

We need to talk about the octothorpe — primarily because everyone else is talking about it too. The past couple of months have see the ‘#’ dusted off, dressed up in its party clothes, and presented to the world at large in a variety of articles, videos, and radio programmes. But the octothorpe’s current renaissance does not stop there; by means of diligent detective work I have determined that it is now possible to experience the #-symbol with every human sense. I mean it: you can see, hear, smell, touch and taste the octothorpe if you so desire. How, you ask? Let me tell you.

We start with a treat for your ears. Roman Mars’ podcast 99% Invisible has long been a favourite of mine. If you’ve never listened before, 99% Invisible is “a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” Each episode is a short but in-depth examination of some quirky piece of design or history — the lightbulb in a Californian fire station that has been burning since 1901; the surprisingly involved world of flag design; and many others — and I was, frankly, giddy to be asked to participate in a new instalment about the history of the octothorpe.

After some to-ing and fro-ing via email, I ended up talking with producer Avery Trufelman over the phone a few weeks ago, and the completed episode (entitled, simply, “Octothorpe”) aired last week. You can read a transcript and take a look at some related images* at the 99% Invisible website, but I heartily recommend that you listen to the podcast itself first — not for me, although I am in there, but instead to get the story of the word ‘octothorpe’ straight from the two men most responsible for its current fame and its current name. Doug Kerr and Lorne Asplund, engineers at Bell Labs during the creation of the Touch-Tone telephone, were, respectively, the architects of the #-symbol’s placement on the telephone keypad and its later christening as the ‘octothorpe’, and Avery chatted to them about their parts in the whole thing. I’d already been lucky enough to correspond with Doug while writing my original posts on the subject, but it was still a privilege to hear him explain the story aloud.

All in all, it was a pleasure to help out and to listen to the finished product, and I hope that you enjoy listening to it too.

Next, feast your eyes on this video from Hank Green, co-founder of online clothing store DFTBA and an enthusiastic vlogger to boot:

Shady Characters readers will already be familiar with much of what Hank says, but his “symbolistic journey” through the creation and naming of the octothorpe is still worth watching.

As a bonus, here’s another video examination of the history of the ‘#’, this time from The Guardian’s Ollie Peart. Be warned: there is some strong language in there, allied to Peart’s ascerbically witty commentary on the subject of the ‘#’. Watch at your own risk!

Next up, we get interactive in more ways than one. Over at Kickstarter, the intrepid duo of Ben Gomori and Jessica Riches are trying to get their project to built a keyboard consisting of a single ‘#’ key off the ground.

The HashKey by Ben Gomori, currently being kickstarted. (Image courtesy of Ben Gomori.)
The HashKey, currently on Kickstarter. Image courtesy of Ben Gomori.)

With twenty-three hours to go at the time of writing, Gomori and Riches are still a daunting £12,500 short of their funding goal. The window to get your own HashKey is rapidly closing — get your pledge in now if you’d like to see them succeed!

So: sight, sound and touch are now taken care of. On to taste and smell, if you can believe it.

In its role as symbol for a pound in weight, the octothorpe is a natural fit for recipe writers. It is terse and visually unique, and unlikely to be mistaken for any other similar symbol. And so, when Marissa Nicosia, a visiting professor of English at Scripps College, took to Twitter to ask what the following symbol was, the answer was immediate and unanimous: this scribbled mark is the pound sign, or octothorpe, caught midway between its earlier ‘lb’ and later ‘#’ forms.

<cite>The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators</cite>, a recipe book written in 1655.
The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators, a recipe book written in 1655. (Image courtesy of Penn Libraries.)

Taken from a 1655 recipe book entitled The delights for ladys : to adorne there persons beautyes stillyris banquits perfumes [and] wators, this pseudo-octothorpe would have been written a scant few years after the birth of Isaac Newton, a man who, as we have seen before, was fond of a handwritten pound sign himself.

The seventeenth-century recipe from which this octothorpe is taken describes how to make macarons, and the complete recipe is available to view (and perhaps to try out) at Penn Libraries’ web site. But if you consider delicate, delicious macarons to be too damned refined for their own good, how about some pre-fried, oven-cooked potato “shapes” in the form of the octothorpe and other zeitgeisty marks? I present to you Birds Eye “Mashtags”, and I have eaten them so that you don’t have to.

Birds Eye “Mashtags”: “PREFRIED POTATO SHAPES MADE WITH FRESHLY MASHED POTATOES”. (Image, and ALL CAPS, courtesy of Birds Eye.)

“It’s Twitter, for your mouth!” as Christopher Hooton described Mashtags in The Independent, and if that is the case then Twitter tastes a lot like warmed-over, carry-out chips eaten the morning after the night before. The less said about the smell, the better.

And there you have it! The octothorpe in five senses. That’s it from me for 2014 — thank you all for reading throughout the year, for the many insightful and entertaining comments, and, well, for buying the book! Have a great Christmas and New Year, and see you all in 2015.

Shady Characters reader Bertil Kjellberg must take the credit for the fantastic Swedish map image. 
I was nonplussed too. Turns out it stands for “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome”. 

3 comments on “Miscellany № 56: an octothorpean Christmas

  1. Comment posted by Randolph Watkins on

    What a delightful Christmas gift, Keith. In the traditional small package, it revealed more fun as it unwrapped. A veritable cerebral oasis amidst a busy week.

    Thank you so much for Miscellany. I am enriched every time I read it. Here’s wishing you and yours a blessed Christmas!

    Randolph the grateful

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Randolph — I’m very glad you enjoyed the post! I have no idea why the octothorpe has captured the popular imagination (or at least the media’s imagination) of late, but regardless, it’s great to see it getting a bit of attention.

      Thanks for the comment, and merry Christmas to you too!

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