National Post (Latest Edition)

What we have here is one of the GREAT COME­BACK STO­RIES in the HIS­TORY OF COM­PET­I­TIVE PUNC­TU­A­TION

For years the oc­tothorpe lan­guished in the mar­gins. Then Twit­ter came along

- ROBERT FUL­FORD

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 wellde­signed 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?

The Big O is a sign with deep his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural roots, part of our her­itage. It didn’t de­serve the ne­glect it suf­fered in re­cent times. It’s lived un­der many names: the hash, the crunch, the hex (that’s in Singapore), the flash, the grid. In some cir­cles it’s called tic-tac­toe, in oth­ers pig-pen. From a dis­tance it looks like the sharp sign on a mu­si­cal score. Whether you call it a pound sign or a num­ber sign or any­thing else, it re­tains its iden­tity. It’s so ma­jes­ti­cally sim­ple that it al­ways looks good, even if drawn by some­one ut­terly with­out graphic tal­ent. Good old #. It can’t go wrong.

Even so, it was in de­cline for years. Af­ter gen­er­a­tions of vig­or­ous life ev­ery­where in the re­tail­ing world where num­bers were writ­ten, it lost out to com­put­er­ized in­voices and re­ceipts that sim­ply ig­nored its value. In lit­er­a­ture, af­ter cen­turies show­ing prin­ters where to put spa­ces, it was abol­ished by com­put­ers that do the same job with the touch of a key­board.

It lost its proud place along­side the & and the @, on a shelf higher than both the © and the ®. Af­ter a while # ap­peared mostly in a cameo role on touch-tone phones, a se­ri­ous come­down.

But lately the pen­du­lum has swung again. On Twit­ter, the home of mi­croblog­gers, the oc­tothorpe has a new ca­reer, re­born as the “hash­tag.” Tweet­ers use hash­tags to cat­a­logue their tweets. Some­one writ­ing about Miles Davis, for in­stance, will tag his name #Miles. Any­one com­ing af­ter will be able to find all the tweets deal­ing with Miles. (You don’t have to wade through phrases like “miles to go be­fore I sleep” or “I’d go a mil­lion miles for one of your smiles.”)

Tech for Lud­dites, a valu­able on­line re­source (“Pro­vid­ing tips, tricks, and tech­niques for nav­i­gat­ing the dig­i­tal world”) says hash­tags al­low tweet­ers to build in­ter­est-based com­mu­ni­ties. It’s heart­en­ing that this func­tion has been cre­ated spon­ta­neously, un­planned by the Twit­ter hi­er­ar­chy — just as, long ago, copy­ist monks in monas­ter­ies in­vented their own work­ing lan­guage.

This year GQ mag­a­zine, a ma­jor ar­biter of the cool, has anointed # “sym­bol of the year.”

GQ ex­plains: “Hash­tags have changed the way we think, com­mu­ni­cate, process in­for­ma­tion. # is ev­ery­where.” What we have here is one of the great come­back sto­ries in the his­tory of com­pet­i­tive punc­tu­a­tion. To­day, &, © and ® have been left in the dust (of course @ re­tains its sta­tus in email).

And what about the name, oc­tothorpe? It’s been re­placed, ob­vi­ously, but there’s no rea­son to be up­set. Change is the law of us­age. That term now be­comes, at least for the im­me­di­ate fu­ture, a his­tor­i­cal ar­ti­fact. Its own his­tory will be the sub­ject of dis­cus­sion for gen­er­a­tions to come, when­ever punc­tu­a­tion geeks gather.

It was born some­where in the Bell sys­tem in the 1970s, when touch­tone be­came es­tab­lished. The first half of the name was easy, though rich in cul­tural ref­er­ence. Since the # has eight points the name fell within the or­der of eight, where an eight-sided fig­ure is an oc­tagon, a sea crea­ture with eight suck­ered arms is an oc­to­pus, eight notes are an oc­tave and oc­to­push (an un­der­wa­ter game played by two teams of scuba divers push­ing a lead puck on the bot­tom of a swim­ming pool) orig­i­nally had eight play­ers a side.

And where did “thorpe” come from? The Amer­i­can

Her­itage Dic­tio­nary says it hon­ours James Ed­ward Oglethorpe, the 18th-cen­tury Bri­tish gen­eral who helped found the colony of Ge­or­gia in 1732. A more pop­u­lar story has an en­gi­neer at Bell Labs de­cid­ing to hon­our Jim Thorpe, an In­dian ath­lete who won the pentathlon and de­cathlon for the U.S. at the 1912 Olympics; he had his gold medals taken from him when his back­ground as a pro­fes­sional ath­lete was dis­closed, a de­ci­sion that was re­versed three decades af­ter his death.

A third ex­pla­na­tion was en­dorsed in 1996 by the New Sci

en­tist, an ex­cel­lent jour­nal in Bri­tain. On an­cient maps you can some­times find the # used to in­di­cate the pres­ence of a vil­lage; it looks like a prim­i­tive plan of eight fields of iden­ti­cal size, with a vil­lage square in the mid­dle. It’s pos­si­ble that oc­tothorpe de­rives from the Old Norse word for vil­lage, which sur­vives to­day in some Bri­tish town names, such as Scun­thorpe in North Lin­colnshire.

The fourth story, backed by ev­i­dence as strong as the sources for the other three, emerged in 2006, a year af­ter an ear­lier col­umn I wrote on the oc­tothorpe. It blames a weird form of anony­mous mal­ice per­pe­trated by Bell Labs en­gi­neers (peo­ple named Schaak, Uth­laut, As­plund and Eby) who de­vised a sound that speak­ers of var­i­ous lan­guages would find dif­fi­cult to pro­nounce. Prob­a­bly this et­y­mo­log­i­cal mys­tery will go un­solved and we’ll never know the truth.

Through all these trou­bled times, we oc­tothorpe sup­port­ers re­mained loyal, like hockey fans who wear Maple Leafs sweaters de­spite all the years of pain. Even though Punc­tu­a­con is a fic­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion (though metaphor­i­cally vi­brant), you can un­der­stand why the mem­bers of our lit­tle band were pleased to raise a glass to the hash mark in its new life on Twit­ter.

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