Sunday, September 24, 2017

Celebrate #NationalPunctuationDay with a Salute to the Octothorpe

National Punctuation Day, celebrated Sept. 24 each year, gives us a chance to have a little nerdy fun or to rant about our pet peeves. Maybe I should I say pet peeve's: making plurals of uncommon words with an apostrophe is one of mine. One of my favorite restaurants had Banana's Foster French Toast for years. Even if I wince at a menu, I can still love the restaurant.

So what the heck is an octothorpe? It's that eight-pointed symbol more commonly known as a number sign, pound sign (another pound sign is £), or hash mark.

The odd name was made up by someone in Bell Labs during the development of the Touch-Tone phone. Obviously, it hasn't caught on, because thousands of automated answering systems advise us to "press the pound key" or enter our PIN, "followed by the pound sign"—and even the most annoying phone tree doesn't mention an "octothorpe." For more on the history of this and other punctuation marks, see Keith Houston, The Ancient Roots of Punctuation, New Yorker (Sept. 6, 2013), or Houston's book, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (2013).