Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Sign of the Times

An intellectually voracious customer of the blog points out the great ambiguity we exhibit in deciding what to call the # symbol.  You know, it’s the thingamajig right above the 3 on most keyboards and in the lower right-hand side of most telephones.

Usually in North American it’s called the pound key. That is probably because of a nineteenth-century telegraph coding system, in which the British symbol for a pound sterling (£) was used to shift from letters mode to numbers mode.  When adopted in the United States, the £ symbol was arbitrarily changed to #. Sometimess it was still called the pound key, but it also took on the name of number sign.

But there are plenty of other names and purposes for this symbol.  It has been confused with the other meaning of “pound” and is now used following a number as an indication of weight, as in 5# of sugar.   

When it comes before a number, as in #2 pencils or Apartment #4-B, it’s a number sign. 

Outside of North America, it’s often halled a hashmark.  Twitter and other social networks have adopted this usage in their “hashtags” system of organizing messages on the same topic.

Other names and uses for the symbol include:
-Cross – English-speaking Chinese typically use this     
-Hex – Commonly used in some parts of Asia.
-Octothorp – This term was invented in the 1960s by Bell 
     Labs engineers as an inside joke.
-Sharp – A similar, though not identical symbol, is used in 
     music to indicate a key designation.  The sharp symbol 
     actually differs in the angle of the horizontal crossstrokes.
-Space – a proofreader’s symbol indicating the need for a 
     space between words or lines.

Yet more names for this useful glyph are crosshatch, fenceposts, garden gate, mesh, flash, grid, pig-pen, tic-tac-toe, scratch, hak, oof, sink, corridor, crunch, and punchmark. You’ll have to figure out for yourself what the oof, hak, sink, crunch and punchmark are used for.  They’ve got me stumped.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou is never stumped, although he is often stomped upon, unfortunately, to little effect. 

   “Thanks for calling: now before you speak,
    Please notice that this menu changed last week.
    First, if you know the number of the line
    You want, press '1' and then the '#' sign;
    This activates the direct-dialing mode,
    Then you can dial the seven-digit code.
    If you just know your party's name, you’d better
    Press a ‘2’ and then the name’s first letter.
    If you wish to hear all this repeated,
    Just say “Repeat again,” and when completed,
    Wait seven seconds, then you press the ‘4’
    And in a while you’ll hear it all once more.
    If you’re unsure of what you want, then you   
    Must press the '*' to hear a new ‘Menu.’
    If all else fails and you need help, why then
    Press '5' and then the '#' sign once again,
    When prompted, then you just say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’—”
    Oh, never mind, I hung up long ago.

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