Showing posts with label symbols. Show all posts
Showing posts with label symbols. Show all posts

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.
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ticks and checkmarks

I'm sure I missed many opportunities when writing about games recently, but I almost immediately reali{s/z}ed I'd omitted (BrE) noughts and crosses/(AmE) tic-tac-toe. Clearly, the BrE name is naming the symbols used in the game: O and X. In AmE, however, those symbols are usually called by the names of the letters they resemble: 'oh' and 'ex'. But the X-like cross has another use in British culture; it marks things that are incorrect, and its opposite, symboli{s/z}ing correctness, is the tick: .

Now, this took some getting used to when I first started teaching in South Africa, where they use the same system. Why? Because when/where I was a child, a checkmark (AmE for ) on your work meant that you got it wrong. This is actually fairly counterintuitive, because a can mean 'good' in various other contexts. For instance, if I wrote an essay in school and it was just OK, it would get a at the top of the page. If it were (usual BrE = was--but we'll get to the subjunctive some other time) very good, it would receive a + or ++. And a in an advertisement or on a grocery list means 'we've got it' or 'mission accomplished' or similarly positive things.

It seems that many American schools use the British system of for 'correct' and X for 'incorrect', while calling them check(mark)s and exes still. It's not clear to me whether this is a recent innovation or a long-standing variation. (American readers--did you get checked or exed wrong, and when?) But there is some evidence that the system that I knew as a youngster is still around in some places, as these teachers (on the page linked above) note:
Canuck: I am a Canadian teacher, working in Korea at an American school. (Yikes) As a result, I'm confused! I've always used a check mark for correct answers and an x for wrong. However, my students are confused and think this is backwards. [...]

Wig [from western Michigan]: I wonder how much it has to do with how papers were graded when you were in school? It's a good question, but everyone in my school uses a checkmark if it is wrong.
Over on the Guardian's Notes and Queries page, it's noted that the Swedes also use to mean 'incorrect' (adding to the multitude of reasons that I feel a kinship with Swedish culture), and it's supposed that originally came from V for Latin veritas 'truth'.

During the first multiracial elections in South Africa (which I was lucky enough to witness), trainers crossed the country teaching people how to mark a ballot paper. One of the things that they had to contend with was the fact that people with some schooling saw the X as a sign of wrongness, so rather than putting a cross/X next to the person they wanted to vote for, it was some people's urge to put crosses next to all the people they didn't want to vote for. So, it's not just the tick/checkmark that can sometimes mean 'wrong' and sometimes mean 'right'--the cross/X can too.
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)