Sign of the Times

Random thoughts on punctuation and other typography

Jim Thorpe, hashtag daddy (image:

Before twitter formally adopted the hash symbol in July 2009, this typological obscurity was the subject of much mystery. Unlike every other punctuation mark on your keyboard, the hash serves no clear role. Even its name changed depending on where you were in the world – North Americans once knew it as the pound sign, whereas people in the UK called it the hash (from a corruption of ‘hatch’, referring to the cross-hatch appearance of the mark), probably to distinguish it from the symbol for British currency. Common ground was found with the colloquial use of ‘number sign’, i.e. ‘question #11’ or ‘#8 spanner’.


Truly Fascinating History

The name ‘pound sign’ has its origins in 14th century Latin with an abbreviation of ‘lb’ to represent the Roman libra (‘scales’) pondo (‘weight’) or ‘pound weight.’ Libra pondo was eventually shortened to ‘libra’, from which ‘lb’ became the contraction. It was common for busy scribes of the era to join these characters together with a horizontal bar (known as a tilde) to denote the contraction, which led to the mark ‘℔’. This eventually evolved into the modern form of the symbol: ‘#’.

Other names for the symbol include the hex, tictactoe, flash, pig-pen, (garden) gate, sharp, crunch, punch and the more recent hashtag (thanks again to twitter). My personal favourite is the octothorpe. The octothorpe (originally ‘octotherp’) was supposedly coined by Don Macpherson, a U.S. telephone engineer at Bell Labs (owned by AT&T) in the 1960s. While designing the touch-tone push-button keypad, Macpherson and his team used the hash symbol to denote a key for sending data to a telephone operating system. Unaware of any naming convention, the engineers decided among themselves to come up with a jokey moniker for the sign. ‘Octo-‘ was a given because the symbol had eight short legs. ‘Thorpe’ referred to the American footballer and Olympic athlete James Francis ‘Jim’ Thorpe (1888–1953, pictured above), who’s achievements Macpherson admired. The team appreciated this made-up word, believing it sounded suitably Greek to give it credibility, and decided to name the symbol accordingly.


Making a Hash of It

The shadowy origins of the name aside, sometimes even the use of the # symbol is the subject of confusion. Lazy typographers (and musicians) occasionally use it erroneously to denote a sharp note: C#, D#, F#, etc. This is incorrect as traditionally the horizontal lines of the symbol need to be slightly oblique to differentiate it from the five horizontal lines of the stave. Thus the correct musical notation of sharp notes is ♯ – subtly different to the parallel lines of the #.

Editors (at first usually American editors) use the symbol as a proofing mark to show where a space was needed, either between characters, words or lines. This differed to the British-English mark for ‘insert space’ but today the hash symbol is universally recognised as ‘space needed’ by proof-readers and typesetters.


Modern Day

Since 2009 the hash symbol has been reborn as the hashtag by twitter (and indeed Gawker, Google+, Instagram, Tumblr et al) using it to corral (‘tag’) subject matter across microblogging sites. For the itwiterate, the hashtag is a way of grouping content that people can search for. Thus someone could tweet ‘this hashtag blog is so exciting!!!’ and their post would disappear into the ether. By modifying the tweet with a hashtag – ‘this week’s #hashtagblog is so exciting!!!’ – other users could search for exciting hashtag-related tweets and post their own appreciative comments (probably).

The resuscitated hashtag has even spawned its own musical style: hashtag rap, whereby the ‘like’ or ‘as’ is taken out of a rapped metaphor or similie and replaced with a pause. An example is from Drake’s contribution to Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Eminem’s 2009 hit Forever: ‘Swimming in the money, come and find me – #Nemo/If I was at the club, you know I balled – #Chemo’. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But with this being rap, a hip hop ‘beef’ inevitably followed about who invented the style. Whatever the origins, the wordplay associated with it supposedly derives from how people post their character-restricted thoughts on twitter. Today’s hashtag rap fans could do worse than use the symbol to speed-dial their dope dealers…



Lil Wayne, hashtag rapper: more lucrative than editorial 
freelancing (image:

In March 2013, twitter celebrated its sixth birthday and reported that over 300 billion tweets had been sent over its then seven-year history, equating to around 400 million tweets every day. That’s a huge number of hashtags. From its obscure roots in 14th century Latin it would seem that the hash has become the most widespread symbol featured on the internet. Not bad considering that before the launch of twitter few people could agree on the symbol’s name, its proper use – or indeed what combination of key strokes are needed to make one (it’s alt+3 on a Mac, and just above the right shift key if you’re using a PC).

Ampersand Addict

Random thoughts on punctuation and other typography

junkie-burroughs amp added
An ampersand addict faces her cold turkey (image:

‘It is one of the worst things about our detestable time
that this ancient… thing “ampersand” is forgotten.’

– Hilaire Belloc, 1923


As this is my very first blog I thought I’d open with a confession and get something off my sweaty chest. Hello, my name is Ben and I’m addicted to ampersands. I have spent hours lost in their curvaceous flourishes, playful curlicues and decorative embellishments. I have typefaces consisting only of ampersands. I subscribe to blogs and websites that collect and share old, new and unusual ampersands. I have books on my shelf dedicated to this free-flowing figure. I understand that this is a minority hobby – there may even be a special register where people like me should be recorded, possibly tagged and monitored by satellites. But if you want to look into the soul and personality of a typeface consider the design of its ampersand, because it’s here that the type designer (not a typographer – typography is the art of using type) gets to go wild and create something of beauty, free of restrictions, something unique. It is the most characterful character. And yes, I appreciate that this is a somewhat specialist interest.

The ampersand is of course a logogram, not a punctuation mark. In its modern form it is a stylised ligature of ‘e’ and ‘t’ from the Latin word ‘et’, meaning ‘and’. It first appeared in first century AD Rome, allegedly scratched as graffiti on a Pompeian wall. At that time the characters ‘e’ and ‘t’ were clearly recognisable – Latin scribes wrote in cursive script, therefore linking the two characters together. As time went by these linked characters merged and became more decorative, giving the distinctive symbol that we know today.


Ampersand anatomy

A beautiful figure, just look at the curves on that!!
(Image: ‘The Ampersand’ by Edvin Thungren, p.28)

It can be claimed that the ampersand owes a debt to Marcus Tullius Tiro (born 103 BC), scribe to the orator and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro was the author of notae Tironianae, a shorthand system of some 4000 signs and symbols (later expanded) that represent words as contractions or composites. Among these was the ‘Tironian et’, which looked like a reversed 7: ‘⁊’. Although the Tironian et and the ampersand were both used into the Middle Ages, they are two different characters – Tiro’s symbol was part of a specialist stenographic language, whereas the ampersand was formed from everyday script, being the two characters ‘e’ and ‘t’ bound by a ligature. Strangely, the Tironian et is still in use in Irish Gaelic script, where it represents the Irish word ‘agus’ (‘and’). It can still be seen in car park pay and display signs, and it’s thought that Ireland is the only country that uses Tiro’s shorthand.


evolution of the ampersand

The ampersand through time – 1. is a representation of the original Roman ligature; 2. and 3. are from the fourth century; 4.–6. are ninth century. (Image:


So the symbol ‘&’ predates the actual name ‘ampersand’ by roughly 1500 years. The name itself came about in the mid 1800s, when school children would recite the alphabet and conclude with the words ‘and per se and’ – meaning ‘[the character] “&” by itself is “and”’. In this sense the ampersand was recognised as the 27th letter of the English alphabet. The name ‘ampersand’ came from a corruption of ‘and per se and’, which is a particularly good example of a mondegreen.

Today, ampersands are not encouraged in formal writing. They typically appear in business acronyms, such as P&O and D&G, or common acronyms – A&E and R&D – and in these instances the typical editorial style does not feature spaces. However, ampersands are also used in trademarked business names that are spelled out in full: Barnes & Noble, Smith & Wesson and Marks & Spencers being good examples; here spaces are used. The symbol of course proliferates in less formal speech such as text messages, tweets and internet shorthand (see :&, online slang for ‘tongue tied and speechless’), another example of how modern technology breathes new life into ancient symbols.

One day I would like to climb the evocatively titled Ampersand Mountain in Adirondack Park, Upstate New York. It was named by W.W. Ely, who made the first recorded ascent in 1872, because of the nearby Ampersand creek that features numerous hairpin turns, similar in appearance to the ampersand symbol. I can’t imagine a better place to celebrate this loveliest of glyphs.