Previous: Ebola: What IS Terrifying
Next: The Paper Towns Movie IS HERE!



View count:326,832
Last sync:2023-01-12 12:45
In which Hank dives in the the convoluted story of the # - whatever that thing is called. Where it comes from, where it's going, and how it got its most peculiar name.

New DFTBA Hoodie:
Feminist as F#*( Shirt:

I didn't have time to say this in the video, but one of the coolest things about "octothorpe" is that it is a word that is part of our language that doesn't have linguistic roots. It was 100% made up. We have other words like this, but not very many.

Join the community at &
John's twitter -
John's tumblr -
Hank's twitter -
Hank's tumblr -
Good morning, John. The world is fascinating.   You can take pretty much anything in the world and drill down far enough to find convoluted tales of hilarity and intrigue. We're gonna do that right now... with this.   The pound sign, the number sign, the hash symbol, different names in different countries, and understandably. In America, a shifted three on a standard keyboard is called a pound sign. In the UK, a shifted three on a standard keyboard is also called a pound sign, but they are completely different characters, what the frick?   Weirdly enough, they actually both have the same origin: the Latin phrase for weight, libra pondo. It's the same reason that pound is abbreviated lb. Despite the fact that that is super dumb.   Now in the middle of the last millennium, bookkeepers would scribble so fast while they were writing down weights that lb started to look like maybe it was a 16, they weren't quite sure, it was unclear, so they started to cross the top of the lb. Their frantic scribbling intensified to the point where it started to look like this.   And that there is the missing link between this, and this. However, this symbol had pretty much fallen completely out of use until the end of the 19th century. That's when the Teletype Corporation was inventing binary codes for the transmission of letters. In the UK, the symbol code for the pound sign was 10111. But in the US, because apparently we don't need pound signs or even want to look at them, they decided to make that pound sign not the UK pound currency symbol, but the old, obsolete pound sign. This is the moment where the magic happened.   Because this symbol didn't actually mean very much, it started to become a catchall symbol for when someone needed a non-confusing symbol for something.    This is probably how it became known as the number sign, you put it before a number to indicate that the number is a number. Which is so extremely non-useful that I refuse to accept that this thing is called a number sign. I know it's a number because it's a number!   Next step in the process: Bell Labs is developing touch tone phones in the 1960s. The engineers at Bell Labs see the potential for phones to control machines and computers, so they want to add two extra buttons that aren't numbers that can be used for those purposes.    Originally, it was a five-pointed star and a diamond, but the engineers at the company insisted that it be a character that was in the newly created ASCII Code System. And neither of those symbols were in there.   After much deliberation, they went with the asterisk which looked a lot like the star and the kinda unnamed symbol in question because it wasn't really being used for anything else, so it wasn't confusing.   So, it was included on phones, and remarkably enough if I go to the keypad, it's still on there! Because it was used by Bell Labs on their phones, it became a standard, culturally understood symbol so much so that it was included on the standard American keyboard. Once again, in place of the British Pound sign, despite the fact that there was not really any good use for it.    Now the engineers at Bell Labs in the sixties seemed to have recognized that there wasn't a good name for this thing because in their manuals that they distributed to different people about how to use their devices, occasionally when referring to this sign, they would have a little footnote that would say "also sometimes known as an octothorpe" or possibly octatherp.   This was a joke, an Easter egg, but it actually for a couple of decades caught on in the engineering community because engineers love jargon, and because, I mean in my opinion at least, octothorpe is a better word than any of the other options.   Now you might argue that with the arrival of the social media hashtag, another use by the way made possible by the symbols prevalence without having a particular use. Hash sign seems the logical way to go; that's what it's called in most of the world, though in America we still say pound sign even though that's terribly confusing.    But for those of us who would rather have our language defined by cheeky nerds of the 1960s than by the whims of social media, for us, we'll always have octothorpe!    John, I'll see you on Tuesday.   Good news everyone, after like a year of working on this, we have launched a new merch store. It's prettier and more functional and you don't have to use PayPal and you can buy posters and shirts at the same time. We've just launched a few new designs, one of them I've had to blur a little bit. And one of them is a pre-order for all my octothorpe lovers out there. Represent. Hashtag octothorpe!