Monday, July 19, 2010

hash/pound/number sign

Editor Mark recently wrote (to) me to suggest the different meanings of pound sign (or pound symbol) as a Twitter Difference of the Day.  In the US, pound sign/symbol is usually understood to refer to this thing: #.  It is also called the number sign in AmE, where it is used to signify the word number, as in #1, which is read as 'number one'.  The use of # to mean 'number' is increasingly understood in the UK, but not often used in that way.


But, of course, if one were to say pound sign/symbol in the UK, it would be understood to refer to this: £.  Now, if Americans needed to refer to £, they would probably say the pound sign or the pound symbol or That little squiggly thing that looks like a capital L in cursive* with a line through the middleBut since they rarely have to refer to £, they're not too bothered by the ambiguity.


The usual UK term for # is hash sign (or hash symbol), but it doesn't seem to have a long history. The OED says: 
hash sign [cf. hash-mark: prob. ult. f. HATCH v.2, altered by popular etymology], the symbol #, esp. used before a numeral (as in N. Amer.) to indicate a following number; the ‘number sign’
1984 Which Micro? Dec. 12/2 Neither user-defined characters, nor the ‘*hash’ sign could be reproduced. 1986 Guardian 20 Feb. 15 Would I please therefore oblige her by using the musical notation provided (I gather that it is called a hash sign).
The (AmE) quotation marks/(BrE) inverted commas and uncertainty about the term in the quotations suggests that hash sign was only becoming established in English (British or otherwise?) in the 1980s. The hatch mentioned in the etymology is the verb sense of 'To cut, engrave, or draw a series of lines', but although one also sees hatch mark in the wild, there's no indication in the OED that this term has ever been popular.  Of course, hash sign/symbol is not restricted to the UK, and its use in the Twitterverse term hashtag will probably give hash an advantage over pound and number in some quarters.  Another term that some seem to use is the descriptive crosshatch symbol--though the OED doesn't yet include it.


I can only guess that the apparent absence long-standing name for # in BrE is due to a lack of need for it.  BrE speakers weren't using # to mean 'number' or 'pound', so it was only when (AmE, orig. proprietary name) touch-tone/(BrE) push-button telephones became widely available that they had much need for a word for that symbol. (And maybe even later--it was years after we had such phones that we got automated interactions with instructions like "press the pound/hash key twice".) 


Because American keyboards typically do not have the £ symbol, people sometimes use # to signify amounts in sterling.  My understanding of this has been that it's called the pound sign/symbol because it is used to mean the same as lb. --i.e. pounds as an imperial measurement of weight--then because it was already called the pound sign, it fell into use for the other kind of pound when need(s) be.  But Mark Liberman on Language Log has been doubting this, and so my reason for choosing tonight to blog about this is just that it's a good excuse to link to his post.

Oh, and if you don't like any of these, you can always call it an (orig. AmE) octothorp(e), which seems to have been invented in the early 1970s specifically for the phone button.

* While cursive is not marked as AmE in the OED (it certainly wasn't coined in America), it's rarely heard in the UK, where people instead tend to say (BrE) joined-up writing.

71 comments:

Jane said...

As someone who was there, I can confirm it was the introduction of touch-tone phones that familiarised the British public with the # sign. I'd never seen one before and had no idea what to call it.

RWMG said...

Rarely heard, certainly. I've always thought of the difference between "cursive script" and "joined-up writing" as one of formality rather than US v. UK. In formal writing I would use "cursive script" (if you see what I mean) and in casual conversation I would use "joined-up writing".

Janibach said...

I was taught "Cursive writing" in my British primary school in the early 1960s. It was a particular style of joined-up writing, similar to that taught in American schools. The term went out of fashion in England when increasing numbers of schools started to teach italic or other more simplistic styles that were not "Cursive", but merely "joined-up".

On the matter of the # and £, on my American computer keyboard if I press alt + # I get £ so a pound is a pound whichever way I look at it. Did I make a hash of that?

Tony Finch said...

Another name for # that I have seen in the context of British telephone keypads is "square". See for example this survey on keypad terminology which also mentions "gate" as a common name.

Amy said...

I (AmE, NYC) call it a "pound" or "number" sign. Also, when I was little, my brothers, friends, and I always called it a "tic-tac-toe" sign.

When I was in elementary school in the late '90s, I learned "script" rather than "cursive." Only the old secretaries in the principal's office called it "cursive." ;)

Doug Sundseth said...

"Hash" for "#" is fairly common computer programmer slang in AmE (to the extent that computer programmer slang is AmE, of course), and has been for N* years.

Other such slang:

Splat *
Bang !
Hat ^

While looking for an early attestation, I ran across this poem:

Waka Waka Bang Splat!

* I think that N is a large number, but such perceptions are notoriously unreliable.

eclexia said...

I think I remember the original Apple manuals (c. 1979) explaining that '#' was called "pound" because it was in the same place on the keyboard (shift-3) as the pound-sterling symbol would be in the UK. 30 years later, I see that Wikipedia dismisses this as bunk. Engineers must have assumed it as so.

Sarah said...

Try speaking Canadian English--or writing it. :)

I was taught to spell "honour" with a "u." Yet, my uni/undergrad/college degree was formally spelt/spelled Honors. And then at grad school in the US/America, everyone thought I was a pretentious prat/jerk for spelling "honour" with a "u" until I said we basically did both, but often lent more towards British English (and were more flexible with other Englishes in general).

(For the record: I think I use pound for a phone, number sign on a computer--unless I mean hashtag, or £, or lb; I was taught hand-writing [as opposed to printing] and would still say that unless I was talking about cursive scripts.)

Nancy said...

My mother, who received a college degree in home economics in Wisconsin in the 1940s, routinely used # to mean lb. when she transcribed recipes.

My third-grade class in California studied "handwriting." I didn't learn of "cursive" or "script" until many years later. And this post marks the first time I've encountered "joined-up writing."

Dave Bath said...

Definitely hash in commonwealth hackish, especially among unix types. Indeed, unix scripts that start with #! and then the desired interpreter, are called"hash bang" scripts, sometimes shortened to "shebang" (pronounced "sh'BANG"). See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shebang_(Unix)

Shebang is an example of magic (but not Deep Magic, and certainly not Deep Magic From Before The Dawn Of Time) as you can find shebangs inside the unix /etc/magic file.

robert61 said...

I knew # as "the number sign", used to represent the category of numbers, until 1981, when I had a part time job at a Jewish deli in Boston (Mass). They referred to it as "the pound sign" and used it to denote weights on stored containers. I remember having to ask the owner what he was talking about the first time he mentioned it.

Richard Sabey said...

I concur with Dave Bath: # is definitely called hash. In the context of the C preprocessor, #if is called "hash if", #define "hash define", etc.

There's a difference between "Touch-Tone" and "push-button". Touch-Tone refers to the way the signals are sent as audio: each signal is sent as a two simultaneous audio tones of specified frequencies. Some push-button phones can be made to send each key press as a series of pulses. I suppose a phone could be built which sent Touch-Tone signals but had a rotary dial, as a kind of retro design; I've seen stranger.

DaveBush7 said...

As someone who was around at the time, the original primitive computers only had 95 (American) characters, and £ was not one of them.

On a computer screen you might see # (which was never used for anything else) but English printers were set up to produce the £ character when you sent them the code for an American #.

barnoid said...

The quote from the Guardian talks about a hash sign as related to musical notation. If they mean the sharp symbol then technically that's different to a hash (sharp always has sloping lines where a hash has horizontal). Programmers in Microsoft's C# language often get this confused, it's clearly called C-hash.

biochemist said...

In UK primary schools (AmE grade school?) one learns to write in separate letters, then progresses to joined-up writing - and in my day loops and elaborate capital letters were definitely not allowed. Marion Anderson is the name that I remember as the author of the very plain style used in the 1950-60s.
Politicians and perhaps journalists more recently (1990s?)introduced the term 'joined-up thinking' to describe what happens when government departments listen to each other and propose strategies that are not just selfish and single-minded - I always think this echoes the changed perspectives in the transition from primary school to secondary/high school.

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

I first came across the American usage in the 1960s with an abortive attempt at an American pen-friend. Her address included the # sign, and I remember mentally calling it "Sharp", since for me, it was associated with musical notation and nothing else. And wondering why on earth an American would have a sharp-sign in their address....

Nowadays, of course, it is a hash, and I very, very, very occasionally use it in a text message to mean number, but am British enough, and elderly enough, to prefer the abbreviation no. instead.

lynneguist said...

One thing I meant and forgot to say in the post: hash mark, as mentioned in the OED entry, is an AmE military term for a 'service stripe' (Wikipedia explanation).

But one also sees hash mark to mean 'hash symbol.

Jill said...

I took a photo of a sign using # to mean per-pound and sent it to an English friend who had asked me why on earth Americans called that thing a pound sign. The sign was posted in a shop window, either in the grocery store or next door, and I took the picture in the summer of 2006.

Since that picture will eventually vanish, I'll leave a record of what the sign says:
-------------------
Fresh Lake
Superior Whitefish
Available Now!

$4.79 #

Jill said...

I'm not convinced my link worked in the above comment, so:

http://ofb.net/~jill/US_Pound_Sign.jpg

Brian said...

With just a bit of Google Books searching, the earliest use of # (or a similar symbol) for "pound" is in this 1918 textbook, which also lists the "number" meaning.

I can find the use of @ as a symbol for "at" (in the business sense of listing the unit price) back to the 1870s. I think of both @ and # as both forms used in handwritten contexts, such as a receipt saying

2# of 10d nails @ $3.25 = $6.50

(before tax, of course, since this is supposedly written in the US).

I just threw in the "10d nails" because it's the only place in AmE where we use the old "d" notation for a penny. These are tenpenny nails. My price is probably way off, though.

Harry Campbell said...

To be pedantic, "touch-tone" and "push-button" do not mean quite the same thing. You can use a push-button phone to produce the same old-style clicks as a dial phone, indeed I've seen models with a switch to toggle between these modes.

For some reason, push-button phones didn't come in in the UK till the 1980s, though I get the impression they had been standard in America for years. Before then they were a kind of futuristic novelty you'd heard of but not seen, like electric windows in cars or television remote controls -- a labour-saving gadget that saved almost no labour, hence a symbol of luxury and decadence, but now completely bog-standard.

The true hash symbol (as opp to the sharp sign in music) was unknown in the UK before then, I would say, except perhaps to computer programmers. I do remember seeing it in some medical notes to denote "fracture", something like "# L hum" for fractured left humerus, and though I've never seen it thus since, it was novel enough to stick in my mind. Today, I get the impression it's pretty much universal among people below a certain age, who have grown up with American/computer-based typographical conventions, and common enough among older people too, to the extent that "No." for "number" is starting to look a bit Dickensian.

The "at" symbol was also a specialist item confined to the keyboards of the better models of typewriter, used only in business letters and bills, but now it's fast becoming commonplace as a shorthand for "at" in any context, just as there are (and have been for centuries perhaps) those who never write the word "and", always "&".

The tilde , "~", traditionally found in dictionaries (as the swung dash) and in computer code, has yet to find a useful mainstream role for itself, but sometimes serves as a more decorative version of the dash for the bored and uninformed.

Harry Campbell said...
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Harry Campbell said...
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Harry Campbell said...
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Harry Campbell said...

Sorry for all the deleted comments, Blogger was telling me each time the post had failed but they got through anyway.

Andrew M said...

Regarding cursive/joined-up writing: when I was a child (Northern England in the 60's) a lot of children in my class called it 'double', though our teachers tried to get them to stop. My mother says that in her childhood in the 30's this was the accepted term.

Manda said...

The # sign can also be seen on British DVD subtitles surrounding sung lyrics. If memory serves, American DVDs use a musical quarter note instead - which makes much more sense.

Graham said...

Can we expect a follow-up on why AmE calls ' "tick" when all the right-thinking world calls it "quote" (or, sometimes, "single quote")? "tick" means something else completely!

Kassie said...

I can testify from personal experience that # has been used in American businesses to refer to weight for decades; certainly well before anyone had a personal computer or touch-tone phone.

Andy JS said...

On my British Apple keyboard the hash sign doesn't appear. In order to get it up, you have to press alt + 3.

Andy JS said...

The majority of phones in UK households were the old-fashioned dial kind until the early 1990s as far as I know.

I'd be interested to know when they were replaced by push button phones in the US.

lynneguist said...

@Graham: I've never heard a single quote called a 'tick' and it's not in American Heritage Dictionary with that meaning, so I'm not sure where you've heard this. In BrE, I more often hear them called 'single inverted commas', but I'd expect them to be called 'apostrophes' in many contexts in either dialect. So, to answer your question, you won't see a post on that, but there is already a post on 'tick' versus 'checkmark'.

@Kassie & @Brian - I wasn't trying to claim that 'pound sign' is new in any way--just that 'hash sign' is. OED has the term 'pound sign' going back to 1923. The term as such doesn't seem to occur in the 1918 book, so while it shows that it was used to symboli{s/z}e pounds, it doesn't seem to show that 'pound sign' was the name for it yet--though, of course, it's perfectly believable that it would have been called that by that time--the OED can only rely on a sample of surviving written materials, of course.

@AndyJS: while the UK Apple keyboard itself has a £ only (and the US one will only have #), you can change your keyboard configuration to the other country's, and then type shift-3 for # on a UK Apple. But you probably know that. I find myself shifting between the two configurations--I seem to be 'bilingual' in touch-typing (actually, trilingual, since I switch to Swedish too). I've been surprised at how easy it is to shift into another touch-typing mode--wouldn't have expected that at all from someone as physically graceless as me!

Re touch-tone/push-button pedantry, I grant you the 'they're not necessarily the same' point, but my intention (as ever in these cases) was to put in the expression that would be most natural in the dialect at hand. When I'm in the US, I call them 'touch-tone', in the UK, I've had to shift to 'push-button'.

I'm enjoying reading all the recollections that this post has brought up!

mollymooly said...

In Ireland in primary school ("national school") it was called "joined writing". As childish as that name has sounded to me in later years, "joined-up writing" sounds even more childish; which is the right nuance if you want to insult someone by questioning their mastery of joined-up writing.

I disagree with Harry Campbell's suggestion that "No." will soon be gone. While I use "#" in informal contexts, or lists of ID-numbers, I would write "Piano Sonata No.21" rather than "Piano Sonata #21". The latter seems undignified.

Graham said...

"tick" to mean apostrophe/quote is a computing term, common in the Unix/Linux world.

Apparently it is also a typography term (according to http://1000timesno.net/?p=261) for a character that is not a quotation mark. I wonder what a BrE typographer calls them (I am a mathematician by education and understand "prime" in this context but have never seen it outside maths).

I assumed it was AmE (as no BrE would have coined it) but I guess it is really just jargon. In my world it is most often encountered in "back-tick" (the ` symbol usually at the top left of the keyboard, often with the tilde). But Waka Waka Bang Splat uses tick, which is what reminded me.

Anonymous said...

My guess is that press-button phones didn't come in until (a) we stopped renting phones from BT and could buy them ourselves (possibly also linked to introducing plugs and sockets for telephone cables rather than having the phone wired in by the BT engineer), and (b) the introduction of tone rather than pulse dialling. I can't really see the point of having a press-button phone for pulse dialling, it seems counter-intuitive. Did both of these developments happen in the early 1980s?

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

Lynne, surely calling a single quotation mark an apostrophe is just asking for trouble? Only the right q-mark looks like an apostrophe, and I often enough see a backwards one or even a bloomin COMMA used instead of an apostrophe! What on Earth has the poor old apostrophe done to deserve so much abuse?? British (NHS) hospitals seem to have abolished them entirely. It's nurses station this and patients toilet that all over the place, which drives me nuts, which admittedly may be a tad obsessive when you've just had a heart attack or stroke, but please, don't encourage yet more apostrophe abuse!

In the computer world, I love splat for asterisk and use it all the time, and may now start using bang for exclamation (mark/point). I'm also fond of the habit of referring to pressing the enter key as "hitting the tit", from the (now rare, I think) little nipple there used to be in the middle of the key to aid finding it without looking.

Richard Sabey said...

@Cameron Why would the Enter key have a nipple? The only key on the numeric keypad that needs a nipple is 5.

Eve said...

In my travels, I've noticed that the @ sign has become the universal symbol for "internet available here".

And if it's an internet cafe (which are becoming rarer due to wi-fi), every computer will have a label showing what combination of keystrokes using the local keyboard set-up makes an @.

J said...

Most of the comments here consider "#" as it is used on keyboards, typewriters or computer. I learned it as a handwritten symbol, for "pound" as in weight, at my first job, in a butcher's shop, in Connecticut in the early 1960s...(see Nancy's comment about her mom's usage, and robert61's).
I like the thought that it is a graphic representation of the abbreviation "lb." --two vertical lines, and two horizontal lines, from the unclosed loop of the "b"; the abbreviation is actually from the Latin for pound, libra.

Harry Campbell said...

@mollymooly I don't think I suggested that "No." will soon be gone, just that it's starting to look dated. I've yet to start using # for number myself.

@lynneguist Yes, my point about touch-tone/push-button was not only pedantic but strictly speaking irrelevant to the question of which form people actually use, though I am surprised to hear that touch-tone might not be understood by Brits. It's slightly more technical perhaps, but doesn't seem at all foreign to me.

Harry Campbell said...

I see from a dict of symbols that hash was sometimes used in alchemy for lead, or alcohol, while the (slanted) sharp sign meant air. So "Pb" as well as "lb". No hints on how it came to mean pound though.

lynneguist said...

@Harry Campbell: To be a bit pedantic, I didn't say BrE wouldn't understand 'touch-tone', I said they wouldn't use it. They/you are a very clever people! ;)

(But I did say I felt I had to change--that's because I do try to adjust my vocab when in the UK so as not to be as much of a sore thumb as I am. When one professes to be a language expert, but is living in a country where one's dialect is regularly denigrated and seen as threateningly imperialistic, it's not a bad idea to show a bit of cultural/linguistic dexterity. Not trying to mimic the natives, just to find some common ground (chiefly AmE) on their turf.)

Julie said...

I don't think touch-tone phones were common in the U.S. before the mid-1980's, either. There were no push-button phones that were not touch-tone, and most of the U.S did not have touch-tone service.

The only meaning I've ever had for "tick mark" is the kind of counting marks you sometimes see in cartoons of jail cells, to count off something by fives.

I always called # a pound or number sign depending on which I was using it for. My observation matches Kassie's. The usage is old, and I think used to be much more common when everything was handwritten.

Anonymous said...

@Manda
The reason British subtitles use a # is probably because subtitles on TV here used to use teletext to display them. Teletext had a very limited number of characters and a note symbol wasn't one of them. I guess we got used to using # and never thought to change.

ANOther said...

When I was in grade school (Minnesota, USA, mid 1960s) we called it "printing" when we made each letter as a discrete unit, and "writing" when we used one penstroke for the body of the word. You sometimes saw the word "cursive" in textbooks but it was never used in the classroom. My mom, whose school years were in the 1920s and 30s, doesn't remember hearing "cursive' used either, just "printing" and "writing".

Robbie said...

It was called "cursive" writing when I learned it (St Louis, about 1970). But I seem to remember my parents being unfamiliar with the term. So maybe the word goes in and out of fashion in the US.

From a quick unscientific scan of the internet, "cursive" is a purely American term that refers strictly to the style of handwriting taught in American schools, which is derived from Spencerian script. British joined-up writing isn't cursive, according to schoolteachers.

Those wanting to see a typical American cursive alphabet can find it under "Cursive" in Wikipedia (although the article discusses all types of "running hand" or joined-up writing).

Here are two interesting blog posts:
How American cursive appears to the British
How cursive writing is taught outside the US (the end of the post discusses how it's taught in the US)

Robbie said...

Pooh. Let's try those links again:

How American cursive appears to the British

How cursive writing is taught outside the US

Anonymous said...

We were taught (UK, 1960s) to write using an italic script that was designed to ensure you could always join up any letter with any other without lifting the pen. I still get some funny looks as to how I write a z (a bit like an n with a tail). A friend of mine (same age) was taught an experimental style at his primary school that didn't involve joined up writing; his writing still looks odd to me.

Isn't it funny how you can always tell a US or French person from the (respectively different) styles of their handwriting?

Today I dialled into an international conference call and was told to input an access code "followed by the pound sign". The voice saying this had an American accent.

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

@Richard Sabey: No I think yuo're right in contemporary terms, but when I started as a computer programmer in 1986 it was fairly common, why I don't know. Hence the expression "hit the tit".

@ANOther: In my childhood in Glasgow, Scotland, we also had that printing/writing distinction. ScE seems to have quite a lot of borrowings from AmE though, at least in and around Glasgow, which was at one time famously a cinema city, with an enormous number of cinemas/movie theaters.

Solo said...

Oooh, I like this one. I'm a 20-something Brit and I've always heard/said 'touch-tone'. 'Push-button' sounds like baby talk o me and had I not read it here first I would almost certainly have assumed it an Americanism.

As a point of interest my mother still has a button phone which pulse dials. You have to press * twice for touch tone, but oftimes the automated operator is confused by the 'star' pulse. It sounds like a rattle on the line, it's very odd. It also takes a long time to dial.

Likewise 'joined-up writing' is a very childish expression. Just 'writing' I would always assume to be joined up and an inability/unwillingness to do so is considered (certainly amongst the adults who surrounded me in childhood) a mark of ignorance or being somewhat educationally challenged. I judge people who don't join up their writing. I judge everyone, but that's a specific criterion.

When I learnt in primary school it was called 'handwriting' and we had special books with narrow parallel red lies inside wider blue lines. The bodies of the letters had to fit between the reds, the stems reach the top blue and the tails touch the bottom blue.

I'd agree that 'printing' is writing where each letter is written discretely, lifting the pen from the paper.

I've always loved seeing letters by old(British)people because they usually have beautiful copperplate, which I wish I'd been taught.

As for pounds- I thought you Statesians measured everything in cups. Excepy really big things which clearly need a larger unit of measurement than pounds. Like the morbidly obese for example.

When I was at college (Sixth Form)we had to market a single by a fictional pop group. For elaborate reasons our artist was called #147, which was fine as we did all our video editing on the Mac G4s and all our image and text work on the PCs. When we came to put the titles on our video however, to make it MTV-ready (or one fo those channels that actually plays music videos) we were tearing our hair out trying to get this Mac keybourd to generate a hash. Eventually, after the assitsance of several classmates and technicians bore no fruit, we saved some of our PC documents onto memory stick (not easy to come by- these were floppy disc days. I am a geriatric) and copied and pasted the has into the appropriate place. I've always hated Macs, they seem to be designed to thwart me. How can you not right click? It's inexplicable.

I can remember the nipple on Enter keys too- they've not been gone that long I don't think. Certainly not in the underfunded state (AmE 'Public')educational institutions I attended.


@Julie- I'd call that a tally. It is still taught as a useful qucik counting method in British schools, for example when taking a survey of something fast-moving like passing cars. My colleagues and I in a bar would often use it to tot up how many of each bottle we needed to bring up from the cellar at the end of the night.

Tim(CdnEng) said...

In my mind, the British equivalent to writing AmE "#1" would be "Nr. 1". Is this still common practice or am I lost?

Anonymous said...

I (UK) know the term cursive, but from studying early documents, not from my schooldays.
I was taught italic handwriting in the early 60s, but, although I admire the style, I never felt comfortable using it myself. As soon as I reached the age when the school stopped enforcing it, I deliberately changed to a style more like Robbie's example of cursive writing.

Kate (Derby, UK)

Andy J said...

On the subject of push-button phones, the technology was first introduced in the USA around 1963 following trials by Bell labs which had started as early as 1941 in Baltimore. Touchtone phones were developed by AT&T and although this was a trademark, the word was soon being used generically for all multi-tone instruments. The whole technological move became possible with the design of new telephone exchanges (later called 'switches') to replace the old Strowger electro-mechanical type, first invented at the end of the nineteenth century, which could only be activated by pulse dialling. Introduction of tone dialling in the UK came a few years after the USA, although the roll-out across the country took well over a decade to complete. One of the great ironies of the British introduction was that it was consumer pressure for push button phones as seen on American TV programmes which lead the GPO (BT was still some years off) to develop the Model756 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GPO_Telephones#756_Type_Push_Button) phone which had push buttons but some clever circuitry underneath which converted the button presses into pulses since none of the UK exchanges were then capable of handling time dialling.

Brian said...

@Andy J: For anecdotal evidence: while touch-tone phones had been introduced in the 1960s, dial phones were still common in the USA in the early 1980s. By the time I got to (AmE) college in 1994, the presence of a dial telephone in one of the academic buildings was cause for remark. I have no proof, but I suspect that the government-mandated breakup of the Bell System in 1984, when the standard Model 500 Telephone was discontinued, was the point that the switch began in earnest.

To go way back in the thread to "Waka Waka Bang Splat" (which I remember taped to a dorm room door circa 1997 with the pronunciation included), most of the terms are computer jargon. "Bang" for the exclamation point reminds me that UUCP addresses were known as bang paths, because they routed files in the form "!domain!domain!subdomain!user".

I've never seen "splat" for * anywhere outside computer jargon. It's normally "star." The North American telephone code for last call return, *69, is pronounced "star sixty-nine" (if you ever wondered where the R.E.M. song title came from).

Cameron MacDonald Black said...

I know it makes me feel very old to hear kids say they have no idea how to use a rotary dial phone. When I first heard it I thought it was pretty pathetic and they must be very stupid, but then I thought "why would they? They've never seen one!" I'm still waiting for the first (no doubt someone will point out it already exists) retro phone to incorporate a dial...

Julie said...

@Solo: We do measure most things in cups. Some things don't fit in the cup. Hence, 5# tomatoes, 1c chopped onion, 1T sugar, 2t salt.

Robbie said...

As per Anonymous... When I was about 15 I realised my handwriting hadn't developed or improved since those cursive lessons at the age of 8, and it looked very childish. So I sat down and deliberately designed a new "typeface" for myself, loosely based on calligraphy, and made the effort to switch. It took about a week to design the letterforms, a year for the new style to become my own, and a decade for it to become really loose and natural.

That artificial hand is still my cursive or joined-up writing style, but I also print in all caps quite often, especially when cartooning or doodling. Now that I'm an editor, the two styles come in handy: joined-up for actual text changes, printed caps for remarks.

I've noticed that my handwriting deteriorates markedly after just a few days doing nothing but typing. It's surprising how quickly the skill starts to disappear, despite decades of intensive use.

Solo said...

@Tim(CdnEng): Can't say I've ever seen 'Nr.1' anywhere. I'd still use No.1 probably. Although I never knew why; your way is more logical.

Elizabeth said...

As for pounds- I thought you Statesians measured everything in cups. Excepy really big things which clearly need a larger unit of measurement than pounds. Like the morbidly obese for example.

I'm sure your joking, but still, how would you measure weights with a volume measurement? How would one measure the volume of a person? Water displacement?

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

how would you measure weights with a volume measurement?

Now, this is exactly what we Britons don't understand - for us, flour, sugar, butter, etc that you Americans measure by volume are always measured by weight here! So we don't know where you draw the line....

PW said...

Re measuring by weight or volume:
I think in the US the difference might be related both to where the measurement is made and how much is being measured. We don't often have small-scale scales in our homes, so big things like body weight can be done on scales, but small things (such as used in cooking) are done by volume. However, I buy groceries by weight that I later reuse by volume. (e.g. a 10 pound bag of flour used in cups for cooking)

@Solo - so if only the morbidly obese are measured by pounds, are the merely overweight measured by cups and the slender measured by teaspoons?

Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth) said...

@ PW I think that was partly a joke on Solo's part as, in the UK, although weighing people in kilogrammes is increasingly common, we used to weigh in stones as well as lbs - 14lbs equalling 1 stone. For us, saying someone weighs 280 lbs means very little; tell us they weigh 20 stone, and we know at once they have problems!

PW said...

@ Mrs Redboots (Annabel Smyth)
I caught the joke. Mine was supposed to be a joke in response. I guess writing needs to have a tone of voice?

Julie said...

Like PW said: Most of us don't use kitchen scales at all. The weighing is done at the grocery store. I would feel pretty awkward trying to come up with a pound of flour. I'd have to dig out my big canning scale, which I haven't used in years and years.

The "cursive" I was taught in third grade was loosely based on the Palmer method, which is pretty typical for the 1960's. Good thing I already knew how to write, since the Palmer method leaves left-handers out in the cold.

Anonymous said...

I guess, I'm just a geek for calling it an octothorp...

Ali L. said...

Sarah said:
Try speaking Canadian English--or writing it. :)

I was taught to spell "honour" with a "u." Yet, my uni/undergrad/college degree was formally spelt/spelled Honors.


In Australia, they spell "honour" with a "u" yet "honorary" without one, which I think they do just to trip me up. (They also spell "labour" with a "u" unless they're talking about the Australian Labor Party, which has none.)

Cailin said...

I'm from MN, US. I call it different things depending what I"m using. When I'm typing on my computer I am usually partial to calling it a number side if I'm referring to phone numbers or when saying typing something like we're #1. However, when on twitter or when writing in print or for all other kinds of reasons, usually at random, I call it a hash tag. I only call it the pound sign when I'm using my cellphone. For the most part I don't do any of this consciously. I really had to think about it to decide what I call that symbol!

enitharmon said...

As a computer professional of many years standing I became resigned to the language register of my business being heavily influenced by AmE (even though we invented the damned things!). But I still wince when a '!' is called 'bang' or 'pling': as eny fule kno a '!' is a shriek, always has been, always will be.



Gina B said...

I was relieved to find this blog. As an originally British person who has lived in the US for 30 years and recently returned to the UK, I was mystified by the term hash sign which people were obviously using to refer to what I knew as the number or pound sign. I do remember when I first went to the US having to get used to writing #25 instead of No. 25 but I have certainly never heard anybody using hash to refer to # in the US. Now I know - thank you for help in readjustment to BrE

Anonymous said...

ecognor1826Not one comment has mentioned that the hash sign is a proofreader's mark to indicate a space has to be inserted in the text. It goes back to the beginning of using symbols to mark corrections on proofs.

Bruce Armstrong said...

Great blog.

I'm Canadian, but was educated in an English private school until the age of 11 when my parents emigrated.

Upon entering university to study engineering in 1965, all new students had to take some basic courses, all of which were taught by civil engineers. The basic stress courses were taught by a man of 78, and we were introduced to the use of # as meaning pound weight. So 678 lbs was written as 678#. A simple notation that old Hoppy said had been in use at least since he went to university in 1915. It was all new to us. Like being a member of a secret society.

Of course, in our physics courses, we had to use the metre/kilogram/second system, so we had to have our wits about us.

The second civil engineering term we learnt was the kip. One kip = 1000#. So stresses in beams were written in ksi, meaning thousands of pounds per square inch.

These meanings (terms) were completely unknown back in the UK where I went in 1969 to obtain my Masters Degree at Imperial College.

So the use of # to mean lb goes back at least a 100 years. I doubt it is a Canadianism, much more likely American. How it began I cannot find out, at least on the internet, but that is hardly surprising, since our modern information system is a milion miles wide, but a mere inch deep and riddled with errors.

In 1977, Canada went metric, so # and kip disappeared from normal engineering jargon. However, the telecom boys were already at it, under the influence of Bell Labs, changing "point" to "dot". So, for example 23.2kg, which everyone would call 23 point 2 kilograms, is 23 dot 2 kilograms if you worked for the phone company. Why, nobody knows. It was a way for those people to have their own little secret handshake, one presumes. And that is how dot com happened.

The North American use of # to mean number, as in #1 is, I believe, a relatively recent usage. I don't recall its usage in Canada in the sixties. We always wrote no.1.

So the appearance of # on the first push button telephones in the seventies I also attribute as a plot by the telco boys to have another secret sign, by co-opting the previous usages for their own ends. It made no sense to the rest of the technical world, but it does have the advantage of being distinctive.