No, that’s not a typo, it’s a convention:

When punctuation geeks assembled earlier this month at Punctuacon, our annual convention, we spent the usual two or three hours whining about the pathetic size of our gathering, compared to Comic-Con International in San Diego, Dragon*Con in Atlanta or any of those tiresome Star Trek conventions that draw multitudes to worship at the shrine of William Shatner.
We have no heroes like Shatner, just ourselves and our proud tradition of judging and promoting the images and ideograms of language — and our totally imaginary convention.
That should be enough, but a love for punctuation, signage and graphic symbols remains a lonely passion. It’s hard not to be bitter.
Why can’t the rest of the world understand that a well-designed semicolon or an expertly made STOP sign is every bit as enthralling as a mint Batman first edition, an early sketch of the Jedi, or a photograph signed by Margot Kidder herself? Why can’t they care about the tragically missing apostrophe on the logo of a certain coffee-shop chain?
Still, Punctuacon was happier this year than usual, mostly because we could forget about what had become at previous conventions the most melancholy issue on the agenda: Who will save the octothorpe?

Read all about the octothorpe, its obscure origin and recent revival, at Robert Fulford’s National Post story “What we have here is one of the great comeback stories in the history of competitive punctuation.” (Thanks, Paul!)


  1. The “obscure origin” seemed to be that of a name no one (except these conventioneers and Intercal programmers) really uses?
    My own tribe (of computer programmers) has never neglected # – it is a comment character in shell scripts (and elsewhere), a preprocessor prefix in C, a privileged character in Common Lisp (and many other flavours) and is used to denote structures in Erlang (which I am mostly writing today). All of which is mostly just Because It Is There (on standard US keyboards), but still.

  2. “Octothorpe” is not a very good name. The explanations in the article are dubious. “Sharp”, “hash” and “number sign” are the most common, but there is the need of a standard. Imagine developing the C# language, which you proudly name “C Sharp”, only to find out that people are calling it “C hash”!
    Unfortunately there’s no flat sign on our keyboards. In the days when people wrote about music with typewriters, a lowercase “b” was frequently used. Why should we have a sharp but no flat?
    It’s also called “pound sign”, which is easily confused with £. I suppose at one time people bought “5# sugar”?
    Then there’s @, which we usually clumsily term “at sign”. But it has a very nice name in Spanish, “arroba”. That’s worth adopting into English.
    These characters turn up frequently in the world of computers, so it would be nice if they all had standard simple names.

  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At_sign is packed full of interesting trivia.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Number_sign is a bit tamer.

  4. maidhc: # is only a ♯ to the extent that b is a ♭, which is to say, if and only if your keyboard doesn’t have the symbol you want and you don’t have a way of outmanoeuvering it.
    That M$’s house language has a name that is itself buggy is no more that you would presumably expect?

  5. In Argentina we call this sign # “numeral”, but I’ve just discovered that in Spain they call it “almohadilla” (pad?), very funny

  6. Bob Violence says

    Chinese uses 井號/井号 jǐnghào, which obviously derives from the similarity in shapes and not “(water) well-symbol”.

  7. It’s not really a convention, it’s more of a custom or practice.

  8. Puntuacon will be a pointless sham until it successfully mainstreams the interrobang. That is all.

  9. This octothorpe stuff was pretty much pounded into the ground, or hashed over — anyway, we did a number on it — in some previous LH thread. Maybe the various circles with diagonal lines through them were discussed there, too, or was that somewhere else?

  10. Can anyone tell me the precise meaning of the ‘/’ in ‘and/or’? (“and/or” will not be accepted as an answer.) In fact, what exactly does ‘and/or’ mean? Is it what my father referred to as “the Greek or” or the “inclusive or”? (P.S. that last unapostrophed ‘or’ was a Greek or.)

  11. I’m gonna go with Parkes’s approach and say, “the smallest pause, less than a comma.” And that any attempt to further pin the semantics down by further divorcing it from speech will involve too many inconsistencies and exceptions.

  12. OED:
    and/or (also and or): a formula denoting that the items joined by it can be taken either together or as alternatives.
    First two citations:

    1855 Law Jrnl. Reports 24 ii. Excheq. 199/2 The parties were to ‘load a full and complete cargo of sugar, molasses, and/or other lawful produce’‥ the words ‘and’ and ‘or’ being introduced into the charter-party.
    1895 F. Pollock & F. W. Maitland Hist. Eng. Law I. i. v. 152 In medieval Latin vel will often stand for and.‥ Often it is like the and/or of our mercantile documents.

    (In both cites, the “and” is superscript and the “or” subscript, but I don’t think I can reproduce that in the comment box.)

  13. Thanks, LH. So it is the Greek or. It would have been easier to invent “gor”.

  14. “the Greek or” or the “inclusive or”
    In a learnèd footnote I encountered recently, the author glossed his use of oder in a sentence with these words: “in the sense of aut, not vel“. After reading that, I had the distinct sense of knowing exactly as much as I did before.

  15. Actually, that’s not quite true. By reversing the direction of explanation, I saw that I had now learned that the Latin aut and vel are not equivalent, or have not always been treated as equivalent by certain writers, or tended to have different meanings in medieval writers as opposed to classical ones. Something like that.
    It’s less like having learned something, and more like having learned that there is something out there to be learned. Not a new file card, but a little yellow Postit sticker with an “!” on it.

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