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Archiver > WORDS > 2000-10 > 0972589813

From: Lee Daniel Quinn <>
Subject: Re: [WORDS] Octothorpe
Date: Thu, 26 Oct 2000 15:50:13 -0400

At 01:54 PM 10/26/2000 -0500, you wrote:
>Found an interesting word today:
>That hashmark symbol that's usually found over the 3 key on computer
>keyboards, and often goes by the name "pound symbol" (at least in the USA)
>is called "octothorpe."
>There're lots more such tidbits of telecom history at the Telecom Archives:
> http://hyperarchive.lcs.mit.edu/telecom-archives/

In issue #72 of my daily e-colum FYSST (Oct. 27, 1998 - that's 2
years ago!) I ran this article:


[When I was working, I oversaw the installation of a new telephone
system in my office. I got my hands on the AT&T literature and found
that which we call either a "pound sign" or a "numbers sign," the (#) on
the telephone keypad, the phone company called an "octothorpe." For
years, that bit of foolishness has been stuck in my odd-ball memory.
Recently, I came across the obscure fact of how this was named. - LDQ]

The real source of the word "octothorpe."

First, where did the symbols * and # come from? In about 1961
when DTMF dials were still in development, two Bell Labs guys in data
communications engineering (Link Rice and Jack Soderberg) toured the USA
talking to people who were thinking about telephone access to computers.
They asked about possible applications, and what symbols should be used
on two keys that would be used exclusively for data applications. The
primary result was that the symbols should be something available on all
standard typewriter keyboards. The * and # were selected as a result of
this study, and people did not expect to use those keys for voice
services. The Bell System in those days did not look internationally to
see if this was a good choice for foreign countries.
Then in the early 1960s Bell Labs developed the 101 ESS which was
the first stored program controlled switching system (it was a PBX). One
of the first installations was at the Mayo Clinic. This PBX had lots of
modern features (Call Forwarding, Speed Calling, Directed Call Pickup,
etc.), some of which were activated by using the # sign. A Bell Labs
supervisor, DON MACPHERSON, went to the Mayo Clinic just before cutover to
train the doctors and staff on how to use the new features on this state-
of-the-art switching system. During one of his lectures he felt the need
to come up with a word to describe the # symbol. Don also liked to add
humor to his work. His thought process which took place while at the Mayo
Clinic doing lectures was as follows:
- There are eight points on the symbol so "OCTO" should be part
of the name.
- We need a few more letters or another syllable to make a noun,
so what should that be? (Don MacPherson at this point in his life was
active in a group that was trying to get JIM THORPE's Olympic medals
returned from Sweden.) The phrase THORPE would be unique, and people would
not suspect he was making the word up if he called it an "OCTOTHORPE".
So Don MacPherson began using the term Octothorpe to describe the
# symbol in his lectures. When he returned to Bell Labs in Holmdel NJ,
he told us what he had done, and began using the term Octothorpe in memos
and letters. The term was picked up by other Bell Labs people and used
mostly for the fun of it. Some of the documents which used the term
Octothorpe found their way to Bell Operating Companies and other public
places. Over the years, Don and I have enjoyed seeing the term Octothorpe
appear in documents from many different sources.
Don MacPherson retired about eight years ago, and I will be
retiring in about six weeks.
Ralph Carlsen

Lee Daniel Quinn <>
Editor of 2 daily ezines: Gentle Humor and
FYSST that examines words, their meanings & etymology.
Ask for a free sample.

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