[ISHMap-List] false cartographic etymology

Matthew Edney edney at wisc.edu
Thu Jan 15 20:59:47 CET 2015


In perusing a Christmas gift — Keith Houston, Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks (New York: W. W. Norton, 2013) — I encountered a wonderfully bogus etymology with cartographic implications.

The discussion of the # symbol emphasized the multiple names for it (hash, pound, number, etc.) and mentions a term I have never heard before: “octothorp.” According to Houston (p. 48), the etymology of this was apparently provided by Robert Bringhurst in his Elements of Typographic Style (Vancouver, 2008) as

In cartography, # is a traditional symbol for village: eight fields around a central square. That is the source of its name. Octothorp means eight fields.

However, as Houston then explains (pp. 49–56), "octothorp(e)” seems to have been a playful creation by engineers at Bell Labs and has no relevance whatsoever to maps.




Matthew Edney

Director, History of Cartography Project

goto http://www.geography.wisc.edu/histcart


         http://www.press.uchicago.edu/books/HOC  >>  free access to vols. 1-3

also Osher Professor in the History of Cartography, University of Southern Maine


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