Re: Corpora: "hash" (was "at sign")

From: Geoffrey Sampson (
Date: Mon Oct 15 2001 - 12:11:54 MET DST

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    I am pretty sure the reason for calling the # sign "pound" is that its
    graphic "etymology" was the letters lb with a horizontal line ligaturing
    them together, lb being the standard abbreviation for "pound", from
    Latin "librum" ("libra"? I can't remember the gender). In my lifetime
    in Britain, until recently when the ayatollahs of Brussels set about
    banning our weights and measures, we didn't use a special symbol to
    abbreviate "pound weight" but just typed/printed the ordinary "lb" letters;
    but in old documents I have seen "lb" with a cross line printed as a
    special "sort", as printers would call it, and I believe that is the
    symbol from which "#" developed in the USA. I think too (but now things
    are getting a bit mistier) that Americans at one stage wrote "#5" to
    mean "five pounds weight", rather than, as they now do, "number 5".

    I am probably a little older than Harold Somers (born 1944), and consequently
    I wasn't "confused as a kid" by seeing # to mean "number", because in
    Britain in the 1950s and 1960s this symbol was completely unknown -- it wasn't
    like the dollar sign which we all knew about but had no occasion to use,
    I don't think most of us even were aware that Americans had this symbol,
    for any purpose. I encountered it when I went to the USA in the mid-1960s,
    but I think many Britons first met it when computers became widespread
    in the early 1980s. I remember the secretaries at the university department
    where I worked in the late 1980s called it "gate", which seemed to me a good
    name for it -- I'm not sure how common that name was, it seems now to have
    been replaced by "hash".

    The musical sharp symbol is very similar but I think is usually written
    slightly differently, for instance the verticals have to be vertical, and
    their tops and bottoms are not necessarily aligned horizontally.

    G.R. Sampson, Professor of Natural Language Computing

    School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
    University of Sussex
    Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, GB

    tel. +44 1273 678525
    fax +44 1273 671320

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