Dial One, Followed by the Octothorpe

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Everyone knows the cross-hatched symbol #.

For some it’s the “pound sign” because it has been used by greengrocers as a symbol for “pound” on the little signs pricing fruit and vegetables: .75# (seventy-five cents a pound).

For some it’s the “tic-tac-toe sign” because of the game that uses it as the playing area.

Automated telephone systems instruct us to dial certain numbers, “followed by the pound sign,” a direction that confused me at first because I think of this symbol as the “number sign.”

As if there weren’t already enough names for it, engineers at Bell have come up with an “official” moniker for it: the octothorpe. The “octo” part comes from the fact that the symbol has eight points. No one seems to be able to say with any certainty where the “thorpe” comes from.

European phone companies, like British Telecom, call the symbol a “square,” a term apparently too simple for the North American telephone industry.

On the other hand, rather than use the obvious word “asterisk” for that symbol on the dial, the telephone powers prefer to call it a “star.” Go figure.

For an exploration of the etymology of octothorpe visit World Wide Words.

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15 thoughts on “Dial One, Followed by the Octothorpe”

  1. Here in Ireland, it’s called “hash” or, in reference to dialing, the “hash key”. This was confusing as I’m originally from America.

    More info from Wiki:

  2. Actually, in the UK it’s usually referred to as the “hash” key. Obviously that has connotations, but we can’t call it the pound, as the pound symbol here is of course this: £
    We also have an actual star ( * ) on our telephone grids. It confuses the heck out of me when I go abroad, use a phonecard or whatever, and get told to “press star”, when actually you mean “press hash”.

    Why these things cannot be simple, I do not know.

  3. Here in the UK it also goes by the name of ‘hash’ and we’re left wondering why BT have to try to change it to ‘square’

  4. I’ve always heard it called the “hash key” by telephone companies.

    We’d never think of it as a “pound sign” over here in the UK — that would be a “£” for a pound sterling. Pounds as in weight are abbreviated to “lb”.

    In music, it’s a “sharp”, and in programming, “C#” is pronounced “cee-sharp”.

  5. I agree with Ali – I’ve always known it as “hash” until I moved to Canada. Never heard BT (or anyone else) call it “square”.

  6. 8 pointed person? Well, if you were going to draw a stick figure of a chubby football referee, making the call, “goal,” it could kind of look like this, “#.”

  7. In The Netherlands the phone companies and most people too call it an “hekje” which means “fence” in English.

  8. Don’t know why I failed to mention the name “sharp” for this symbol. I do read music.

    Calling it a “hash mark,” however, seems odd to me. That’s because to me “hash marks” are stripes on a military uniform sleeve. They indicate length of service. You can see an illustration of this kind of “hash mark” here:

  9. I’ve always called that a hash mark – and that’s what everyone on Twitter calls it; we have a whole series of “hashtags” and create new ones daily. And with Ali, I’ve heard it called a “hash key” as well, although on most telephone menus, it’s called “please press the pound key”.

  10. The name “hash” is related to the “hatch” in cross-hatch, and that is really the only sensible name (“sharp” being a different character: ♯). “Octothorpe”, of course, is more or less a joke; and “pound” only makes sense to Americans who can’t write clearly ;-_

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