Long-time readers will remember that 99% Invisible, the wide-ranging podcast hosted by Roman Mars and produced in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California, featured an episode on the octothorpe back in December 2014. It’s a great listen: 99PI producer Avery Trufelman managed to track down Doug Kerr and Lorne Asplund, two of the engineers at Bell Labs who were instrumental in placing the ‘#’ on the then-new telephone keypad and later christening it as the “octothorpe”, to get the story behind the mark’s rebirth in the computer age.
You remember the octothorpe, don’t you? This plucky little mark evolved from the Roman abbreviation lb for libra pondo, or pound weight, and into the barred medieval ‘℔’ before settling into its modern form of ‘#’. Along the way it picked up a cacophony of mostly reasonable nicknames: pound sign; number sign; hash sign; hex; grid; crunch; pig pen; square; tic-tac-toe.1,2 Sometime during the 1960s, however, it acquired another name — ‘octothorpe’ — that is unreasonable by design. The roots of that name lie in the hallowed corridors of Bell Labs, but today we’re interested in one of the false etymologies that cling to it like a bad smell:
At the heart of Shady Characters’ recent redesign are the text and display typefaces of Satyr and Faunus, both designed by Sindre Bremnes of Norway’s Monokrom type studio. Shady Characters, of course, is all about unusual marks of punctuation, and I was glad to see that both typefaces came complete with a handy selection of special characters. Even so, there were a few marks missing: the interrobang for one; the numero symbol I use in many post titles for another. As I chatted to Frode Helland of Monokrom about the minutiae of web fonts, though, he suggested that he and Sindre might be able to add some new characters to help Shady Characters live up to its name.
Another day, another edition of Shady Characters! The handsome book on the right is the Chinese complex characters (also called traditional characters) edition, courtesy of Taiwan’s Rye Field Publications. The cover design is by Chang Lien Hung, aka elf-19, and I can promise you that it is far better looking in real life than my terrible photo makes it out to be. It is available now for ¥360. I’d love to hear what Chinese-literate readers might think of it — if you lay your hands on a copy, please leave a comment below or drop me a line via the contact form!
Things are busy here at Shady Characters and I’m afraid there’s no time for a proper entry this weekend. What I can offer you instead is the brief history of the # and the @ that I put together recently for the Penguin Books blog — have a read, and feel free to drop by afterwards with any comments you might have!