Since I am, both by vocation and avocation, a word guy, it’s pretty rare for me to learn new English words. Since I am, in particular, a number words guy, it is especially rare for me to learn new English numerical words (my personal all-time favourites are tolfraedic and zenzizenzizenzic, for the record). So imagine my surprise upon reading the latest post from the fantastic Shady Characters blog on punctuation to encounter the word bithorpe, and then after some searching, its cousin quadrathorpe, both of which were new to me.
You won’t find either of these in any dictionary, but you will find them in dark corners of the Internet. You will find octothorpe (also spelled octalthorpe and octothorp, however – a word that emerged from the folks at Bell Labs in the late 60s / early 70s to refer to the sign #, known to most as pound or number sign or hash(tag). No one is really clear on its etymology, as there are a number of unconvincing competing theories, but it’s reasonably clear that the ‘octo’ is supposed to represent the eight points on the ends of the four lines. And thus, by jocular extension, a quadrathorpe is an equals sign (half an octothorpe) and a bithorpe is a hyphen, with four and two endpoints respectively.
Hoping to procrastinate from other, more important things, I spent some time this afternoon poking around on the origin of these strange terms, and the earliest I could find is this Usenet post from the group misc.misc from April 1989 (i.e., several years before most of us even had email and two years before Al Gore created the internet). Since this list was composed from the results of a survey, someone obviously coined them (in jest) before that time, but probably not much before. This list appears to have spawned many copies (some exact, others less so), almost all of which reproduce the rhetorical (possibly unanswerable) parenthetical question, “So what’s a monothorpe?”