Last updated on March 23, 2021
Everyone knows “hashtag”. It’s a fairly young word, but it has completely saturated the world. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s first known use was in 2007 — it’s probably safe to assume it was on Twitter. Merriam-Webster declared it the word of the day on 6/23/2014, the same year it was added to the dictionary. But what came before hashtag?
The little symbol “#” that precedes our hashtags today has been known as a hash, square, pound sign, number sign, tic-tac-toe sign, noughts and crosses sign, and — my personal favorite — octothorpe.
Octothorpe’s history, however, isn’t as definitive as it’s cousin, “hashtag”. By most accounts, workers at the Bell Telephone Laboratories invented the word sometime in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s.
There is nearly universal agreement that the first half of the word refers to the eight lines projecting from the center square. The “-thorpe” however, remains a mystery, with far too many stories behind it to pinpoint the real one. Some of the most interesting include:
- A Bell Telephone Laboratories employee who burped while talking about the symbol.
- It’s a derivative of the Old English word for village (thorp) because the symbol looks like a village square surrounded by 8 fields.
- Don Macpherson, a Bell Labs engineer, added -thorpe to “octo” because he was part of a group trying to get the olympic medals of athlete Jim Thorpe returned from Sweden.
Whatever its origin — and I’m rooting for the village square because it’s whimsical — octothorpe’s first appearance in print is in a 1970’s US patent filing, spelled “octothorp”. Other variations of the word include octothorn, octalthorp and octatherp.
I think we should use octothorpe more often. It’s just so fun to say. Oc-to-thorpe. In my opinion, it rolls off the tongue quite nicely (although perhaps not as quickly as “hashtag”).
What do you think? Should we become linguistics necromancers and bring back octothorpe, or let it die away completely? Leave a comment with your thoughts.