octothorpe

Early handwritten and typeset versions of the octothorpe


in which your humble blogger, 
practicing the art of restraint, 
occasionally has a go at the "word of the day" 
as delivered daily to one's email inbox from the servers 
at ye olde Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles
(and with apologies to all)


Bobby and Mathilda shared a nice flat in one of the recently constructed buildings on East First Street, a destination for architecture students the world over. A little known non-profit called City Lore had taken over the ground floor space which had originally housed the Lower East Side Girls’ Club. As the couple curled up into each other on the long arm of a really cozy sectional, they had no knowledge nor interest in the storefront’s brief history. They were quite happy to settle in for an hour or two of the Canadian comedy, Trailer Park Boys. In fact, it was Mikhail,    one half of their Thursday evening dinner guests, Mikhail and Aurora, who had told them about the Netflix-streamed series. But now that the episode had started, Mikhail turned his nose away to poke at the screen of his new iPhone 5-something. “You’ve got to see the Conky episode,” Mikhail had contended as they swallowed the shots of digestif he had brought along, a fancy bottle of Calvados from the deep south of Languedoc.
“It’s way crazier than when Schweiber goes ventriloquist,” Aurora had seconded, pushing her glasses back up onto her bridge.
But now that the show was underway, Mikhail seemed distracted, which proved more distracting to Mathilda than Bobby, who well understood and totally empathized with his friend’s divided attention. They’d both been guilty of such behavior since meeting at the museum school—hell, since before they’d met. Who of their friends wasn’t? Still, Mathilda’s distraction distracted Bobby. For now, he would say nothing. The show had just started, and Aurora was watching. Maybe she would somehow influence Mikhail by example.
No sooner did the title sequence start—just after Bubbles ties his aching tooth to his shed door and slams into Ricky’s face—than Mikhail starts reading aloud from his iPhone. “Listen to this: octothorpe Black Panther Marshall Eddie Conway released after 40 years.”
Bobby seized the opportunity to upbraid his old buddy. “Are you seriously going to tell us about some octopussy some Black Panther ate 40 years ago while we are trying to be enlightened by some good old Canadian socialist propaganda?”
“I said ‘octothorpe,’ not octopussy, you illiterate plebe,” challenged Mikhail. 
“I’m guessing the Black Panther release is not what we’re in for,” Aurora said.
“I’m with Roro,” Mathilda sighed.
Bobby looked from Mathilda to Aurora, back to Mathilda to Aurora, then to Mikhail. “Seriously?” Bobby pleaded with Mikhail. 
“The Panther story is basically another bogus conviction. The nut is here: quote—‘prosecutors said they could not convict him again if retrying a case built on testimony of a fellow officer and a jailhouse interview.’ He got busted as a cop-killer back in ’68, ’69.”
“So, how’s this… octotorch—that some legal jargon for cop-killer?” Bobby asked, taking the bait.
“You hit pause?” Mathilda verified.
“I did,” Bobby assured her. “It’s still  on the theme song.”
“Octothorpe,” Mikhail said, “is the technical term for what you commoners know as ‘hashtag.’”
“Are you serious? You stopped Trailer Park Boys—the episode you claimed to be better than Schweiber’s ventriloquist meltdown—for another one of your dubious entomological discoveries?” 
“You mean ‘etymology,” Mikhail corrected.
“No, I mean entomological, because your logic is buggy.” 
“He got you there,” Aurora snickered.
“That’s an old one,” groaned Mikhail.
“Is there more applejack?” Mathilda asked, uncoiling her limbs from Bobby’s to stand.
“Right here, my dear,” Aurora raised the bottle high by the neck.
“Make it a round,” Bobby said, stretching his arm out, empty tumbler in hand.
“‘Hash’ is British,” Mikhail started. “It’s Bell Lab guys who came up with octothorpe. But three different guys tell three different versions.”
“Maybe we should have watched Rashomon,” Aurora grinned, pouring the calvados.
“The first guy was Doug Kerr, a self-described bad boy on the ISO committee that put the ASCII-character set together. He says he picked the star and the number sign as the two non-numeric keys when touch tone dialing started in 1959. Then two of his buddies came up with octatherp as a joke, mainly because ‘th’ is impossible for Europeans to pronounce. So he used it in his technical papers. 
“But then, another guy, Don Macpherson, also at Bell Labs at the time, he says he came up with octothorpe because the four lines have eight points; octo. And then, since he wanted that great all-American half-breed, Jim Thorpe, to get his Olympic medals back, he added thorpe.”
“You mean he got his medals taken away because he was half-black?” Mathilde wondered.
“Yo, why it gots to be like that, yo?” Mikhail teased in his expressly poor imitation of a black accent. “Just because you half-black and shit, you think it’s all about the mulatto all the time. Right? I bet you don’t even know who Jim Thorpe is. And you know why you don’t know who Jim Thorpe is? Because Jim Thorpe was a half-Indian half-white motherfucker. As in native American Indian. As in both his moms and his pops was half-white half-Indian ass nigroes. And both Catholics and shit, too. My boy was straight-up buggy-ass Okilee from Okilee-ass-homie and shit, yo. Raised up on da Rezz, Prez.”
“A’ight, okay, Professor Peabody!” Mathilda retorted. “Sports wasn’t never my strong suit, despite the complexion.”
“I think she means ‘complex,’” Aurora jabbed, still carefully pouring the apple jack into the last of the four glasses.
“So, that’s two,” Bobby counted impatiently. “What’s number three?”
“Number three says an unnamed team of Bell Labs guys came up with the octo prefix and tacked on thorpe because it was Old Norse or English for village. Kerr called it a revision of German ‘dorf,’ also village. And since mapmakers use the sign to denote village, they said it was eight fields around a village. Octothorpe.”
Aurora started passing out the glasses. “Well, where the fuck’s hashtag come from?” she asked.
“The Brits. Supposedly, it looks like the little square cut potatoes called hash browns to them. Americans added tag in the eighties.”
“What about all the other meanings?” Mathilda wanted to know. “Like number and pound and tic-tac-toe and who knows what the fuck else?”
“Here, I’ll look it up.” Mikhail stuck his nose back at the screen and started poking it with his fingers.
“Fuck that!” Bobby complained. “Whatever the fuck you find, it’s going to have to wait twenty-three minutes. It’s Conky time, bitches.”
“Hell’s, ye-ah!” cheered Mathilda, clinking her tumbler to Bobby’s even as she coiled her limbs back around his on the long arm of their phat sectional. They sucked the hot amber into their dry mouths and smooched. Bobby leaned deftly away from her and hit the space bar. Meanwhile, Aurora planted a wet kiss on her man’s forehead, gliding toward a spot on the short leg of the couch.
“I’m sorry, Ricky,” said Bubbles.
“Fuck!” cursed Ricky, sprawled in the dirt.
The Jargon File lists the following terms for #:
#Common: number sign; pound sign; hash; sharp; crunch; hex; mesh. Rare: grid; crosshatch; octothorpe; flash pig-pen; tictactoe; scratchmark; thud; thump; splat.
Sources: 
octothorpe; Oxford University Press 2014, www.oed.com
Letters: Internet hash by Kay Dekker, New Scientist 30 Mar 1996; http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg14920236.900-letters-internet-hash.html#.UyuxPdxH1SU
What Is the Real Name of the #?; http://blog.dictionary.com/octothorpe/
The ASCII Character “Octatherp”, by Douglas A. Kerr, P.E., The Pumpkin, Issue 1 May 7, 2006. doug.kerr.net/Pumpkin

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