"Pound sign question mark star exclamation point"

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A recent post on Arnold Zwicky's blog features Kevin Fowler's Pound Sign, which brings cartoon cussing to the medium of music for the first time (?):

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Just in case there might be little ears around,
I won’t say it, I’ll just spell it out -
I feel like pound-sign, question mark, star, exclamation point,
Don’t give a blank, and a whole lot of other choice words I can’t say -
Today I feel like pound-sign, question mark, star, exclamation point.

(You can hear the whole thing here, or buy a copy here.)

As far as I know, Kevin Fowler isn't related to the brothers Henry Watson Fowler and Francis Fowler, authors of Fowler's Modern English Usage. But he clearly has a well-developed sense of linguistic propriety, as well as the nimble wit characteristic of both country song writers and usage mavens.

This happens to be the fifth anniversary of the first LL post to discuss cartoon cussing (“You taught me language, and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse”, 7/17/2005). In the FoxTrot strip that I cited five years ago, Peter complains that "comic strip curse words leave something to be desired":

And I've always agreed with him. But after listening to Pound Sign a few times, I'm starting to warm up to "pound sign, question mark, star, exclamation point" as a way to express pain, anger, frustration, or annoyance.

[Other relevant LL posts include "Call me... unpronounceable", 9/6/2005; "Beetle Bailey goes positively meta", 6/22/2006; "More @!%!**#~@#!! wisdom from Beetle Bailey", 6/23/2006; "Everybody's going meta", 6/23/2006; "Obscenicons in the workplace", 8/24/2006; "2500 words for cursing the weather", 1/18/2007; "Reading the ampersand comics!", 3/21/2008; "Spiral thingy lightning bolt!", 3/20/2008;"A little more on obscenicons", 3/23/08; "Seven words you can't say in a cartoon", 7/4/08"; "Comic profanity", 4/26/2009.

And here's a historical puzzle. In "The earliest typographically bleeped F-word?", 6/15/2006, a tip from Mark Matienzo traced the "F___" type of typographical bleeping back to 1698. What was the earliest use of mixed typographical symbols (as opposed to uniform asterisks or underlining) to represent (part or all of) taboo words?]



  1. Roger Depledge said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 9:30 am

    "£££!”? Someone has money on the brain. What many Brits call hash, the French call dièse “sharp”, which I have only just learnt is not actually the same character. The German Raute does sound pretty angry; I haven't looked for any others.

    [(myl) As I understand it, the connection is purely a matter of where on the typewriter keyboard it was traditionally placed. For whatever reason, the symbol # -- which is less confusingly known as an "octothorp" or a "number sign" or a "sharp sign" or a "hash" -- is conventionally called "pound sign" in the U.S. these days, even though it has no visual or semantic connection to the genuine pound sign £.

    And the proportion of Americans who associate the "pound sign" # in any way with money is negligible.]

  2. Theodore said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    Through my childhood & adolescence (b. 1969 in the Chicago area), "#" was never known as "pound sign," but rather "number sign" or occasionally "hash mark." I don't think "pound sign" became common in my experience until it was used in automated telephone messaging systems (e.g. "enter the extension followed by pound").

    As for "dièse," though we sometimes use "#" as a typewritten substitute for "sharp," the two are different: The musical sharp sign has the vertical strokes truly vertical and the crossbars slanted.

  3. Paula said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 10:43 am

    Isn't the American "pound sign" referring to weight, not currency?

    I recall reading recipe cards hand-written by my grandmother which used
    "3# potatoes"
    in the ingredient list.

  4. Ellen K. said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    In particular, it seems to me, it's on telephones that the # sign is always called the pound sign in the U.S. And the * is star. I'm actually inclined to think of it as a number symbol out of context. I've never seen it used as a pound sign, I just know what key to press when the voice on the phone says "press pound".

    Also, pound here refers to weight, not money. Definitely no money on the brain reflected in the song.

  5. Sili said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 11:42 am

    If they were two brothers, why isn't it called Fowlers' Modern English Usage?

    [(amz) Because DMEU was almost entirely written by Henry. After the jointly-written King's English in 1906, Henry and Frank embarked on a joint Dictionary. They had about a quarter of it written in draft when the First World War intervened and Frank died (in 1918), leaving Henry to finish the volume on his own.]

    I had no idea "#" was called "pound" anywhere. Lesson of the day, I guess (easier than trying to understand tensors, though).

    Danish used a big Π of sorts to denote a pound (the weight/mass). I have a handwritten recipe of my nan's using that. Of course by then the pound had been decimalised after we adopted the Système International.

  6. John Cowan said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 12:09 pm

    Wikipedia has a comprehensive discussion of the names of # and their etymologies, as well as the many, many current uses.

  7. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 12:21 pm

    What was the earliest use of mixed typographical symbols (as opposed to uniform asterisks or underlining) to represent (part or all of) taboo words?

    I always assumed this was a comic strip convention. In his history of "grawlixes" (what I prefer to call "obscenicons"), Gwillim Law gives examples back to "The Katzenjammer Kids" — a strip from Sep. 3, 1911 has "★ – ! – !" along with some other scribbles. "Wash Tubbs" appears to have introduced the spiral character (the original "grawlix") c. 1924.

    [Update: I found an earlier example.]

  8. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 1:32 pm

    It's called the pound sign because in groceries and suchlike places it represents the words "per pound," as in $2.50#, which means "two dollars and fifty cents per pound."

    I thought people knew that.

    [(myl) This is an interesting idea, which I've often heard advanced as an explanation of the name, but never seen in actual use. e.g. in the grocery store or in newspaper ads. So I've always assumed that it's a sort of semiotic folk-etymology.]

  9. Rubrick said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    All the given etymologies for "pound sign" are spurious. It acquired that name when Ezra Pound began ending lines of poetry with it, in the mistaken belief that the reason people liked Emily Dickinson better than him was because she used nonstandard punctuation.

    [(myl) The best theory yet. (Not the one most likely to be correct, but the best one.)]

  10. Julie said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    I'm with Paula on this one. I grew up with recipes and shopping lists marked in just that way, and my own (mostly copied from my mother's recipe book) use the same convention in those rare places where a pound of something is called for.* So one buys 10# potatoes, 2# onions, etc.

    *American recipes rarely designate weight except in regard to fresh produce. Other ingredients are normally measured by volume: 1t=1teaspoon, 1T=1 tablespoon, 1c= 1 cup. I learned these abbreviations as a child. I have never seen them in published books of any age, but they show up often in handwritten recipes.

  11. Q. Pheevr said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    @Rubrick – Of course, real reason people liked Dickinson better than Pound was because she wasn't a fascist. But her use of the Emily Dash (or "Em dash," for short) probably didn't hurt.

  12. Terry Collmann said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 6:52 pm

    As Wikipedia says, "On standard US keyboard layouts, the # symbol is Shift+3. On standard UK keyboards, Shift+3 generates the pound currency symbol (£)." So both keyboards generate what the natives would call a pound sign when Shift+3 is pressed, but they're two different signs … coincidence, or deliberate?

    [(myl) I was told by someone who worked for AT&T when the Touch-Tone™ keypad was developed (in the late 1950s) that the designation "pound sign" for the # symbol came from the fact that shift-3 generates # on American keyboards -- a symbol whose name people were not sure of -- but the "pound sign" on British keyboards. It's clear in any case that this was a widespread usage for decades before that time -- the OED's second entry for pound sign is "U.S. The symbol #, esp. as found on a keyboard or touch-tone telephone; the hash sign", with citations back to 1923:

    1923 W. E. HARNED Typewriting Stud. II. 29/1 Special Signs and Characters..#..Number or pound sign; # 10 (No. 10); 10# (ten pounds).

    It's not clear from this entry whether "ten pounds" was supposed to be avoirdupois or money.]

    Britons in the US must get very confused when asked to "press the pound sign" on automatic telephone systems.

  13. Sili said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    Much as I enjoy the eponymicality, I have to point out that Halmos had a tombstone long before he died.

    Also: sorry for trying to make a funny about misplaced apostrophes in "Fowler's". Guess it sounded better in my head.

  14. Matt McIrvin said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    What makes it mysterious is that, in modern US usage, # is almost never used for anything associated with pounds; we use "lb." or "lbs." for pounds and "/lb." for "per pound". It is still sometimes used to mean "number". I always knew it as a "number sign" when I was a kid, and the phrase "pound sign" was initially as mysterious to me as it must be to Britons.

  15. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

    I did not offer $2.50# as a theory, but as an observation. Is it a regional thing? Because it's all over the grocery stores here (California). Not as common as Lb, but common enough.

    Also, when I worked as a bagger of weird health food items and a grinder of peanut butter, we used the symbol all the time.

    [(myl) Perhaps there are regional differences. Or maybe I've just got a blind spot for this. Anyhow, I can't remember ever having seen it.

    (Update) But I do note that the American Heritage dictionary has "The symbol (#) for a pound as a unit of weight" as its second gloss for pound sign.]

  16. Lance said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 8:50 pm

    It's called the pound sign because in groceries and suchlike places it represents the words "per pound"….

    But then one might ask: is it called the "pound sign" because of that usage? Or did it gets its name via the transatlantic-keyboard explanation, and once it was called "pound sign", grocers began using it to mean "pound"?

  17. Julie said,

    July 17, 2010 @ 11:39 pm

    It doesn't surprise me that English readers would be unfamiliar with this usage, since "pound" has another meaning there, but I'm very surprised that Americans don't know it. I thought of it as something old-fashioned that "everybody" knew. Is this because few of us remain that learned to cook at our mothers' sides?

    I would be very surprised if that usage were to be new enough to be derived from keyboards. I'm pretty sure I've never seen it in a printed recipe. Now I will have to go back and look at my grandmother's recipes.

    Lucy, I've seen it in grocery stores, too, but I never thought it meant "per pound," but "pounds." I would interpret $2.50/# to mean 2.50 per pound, and 5# to be simply 5 pounds. Compare $1.25/10#. $1.25 for 10 pounds. I can see that grocers might have simplified it further in the stockroom; I only know what it said over the produce.

  18. Szwagier said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 4:07 am

    And there was me ("there was I"? I just don't know any more…) as a Brit being momentarily extremely impressed that a country singer, of all people, knew what a pound sign was. Ah, well…

  19. Kendra said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 5:12 am

    Growing up in the 80s in the Midwest, # was a pound sign – but it represented pounds as weight rather than pounds as money. I most often saw it at the grocery store where we'd buy certain things in bulk, and they were labelled with a pound sign for the weight.

  20. Theodore said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 8:45 am

    Julie said,

    It doesn't surprise me that English readers would be unfamiliar with this usage, since "pound" has another meaning there, but I'm very surprised that Americans don't know it. I thought of it as something old-fashioned that "everybody" knew. Is this because few of us remain that learned to cook at our mothers' sides?

    I learned to cook at my mother's side, but she was a nerdy Latin scholar who preferred "lb." When I worked in a commercial bakery where all ingredients are measured by weight, lb. was used. I did use "#" in the context of the hardware store, where it means "number" in screw and drill bit sizes.I'd be interested to see the statistics on where in N. America "#" is used as "pound".

  21. Kivi said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 1:26 pm

    Other links relating to verbalizing punctuation marks:
    Waka Waka Bang Splat!, a poem consisting almost entirely of punctuation
    Victor Borge's classic phonetic pronunciation system

  22. Lars Mathiesen said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 1:54 pm

    My grandmother (Danish) used a pound sign as well in her hand-written recipes, but it wasn't quite the same as the modern hash mark — it was more like a lowercase (handwritten) u with the right stem curled back to cross the left one.

    I can see how this could develop from an lb ligature (but not prove that it did, of course) — and how it could develop further into a hash mark by turning the bottom 'connection' of the u into another crossbar.

    So, maybe all those American grocery stores are in a sense writing lb for pound, with a ligature that's become as hard to recognize as & for et.

    [(myl) In 50-odd years of shopping, at one time or another in most regions of the U.S., I've never come across one of those grocery stores. No doubt they exist, given the testimony of various other commenters; but they can't be very common.]

  23. Lucy Kemnitzer said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 2:23 pm

    Lance, I doubt that the trans-Atlantic keyboard theory would be correct, unless people were a lot more worried about keyboard placement in the fifties-seventies than I think they were.

    [(myl) But the keyboard-placement actually derived from the Baudot-code equivalence. This was a more interesting and serious correspondence than typewriter-key location, and also one that would have been very familiar to the folks in the phone company who invented and marketed the touch-tone pad.]

  24. Lars Mathiesen said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 4:00 pm

    Ordbog over det Danske Sprog shows the mark I was talking about. Clearly a fancy ligature of 'lb', but also very reminiscent of a # to my eyes. I don't know if this was unique to Danish usage, and I don't have the means to research it, but Danish commercial usage was closely tied to German at times.

    Could it be that the grocery stores using # in the US are in Scandinavian- or German-settled areas?

  25. Steve Morrison said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    One more data point: I've been familiar with the usage from childhood; I grew up in Cincinnati and was born in 1962.

  26. Nik Jeffords said,

    July 18, 2010 @ 11:47 pm

    As a long time restaurant professional, I've been familiar with stacks of invoices from various food distributors. Most of them, Sysco included, use the # for pounds (weight) when denoting pack size. Thus 3/4# would mean a 12 pound box consisting of three, four pound units.
    Also, when taking inventory, I use the # all the time for pound. It facilitates clarity. When furiously scribbling numbers on a notepad, lb can look a lot like 16 and 3lb can easily turn into 316, especially if someone else transcribes. 3# is much harder to misread.

  27. giedd said,

    July 19, 2010 @ 12:26 am

    The consensus on the thread so far seems to be that "pound" is American, whereas "hash" is English. In that case, does anyone know why #(topicname) on Twitter got to be called a "hashtag" rather than a "poundtag" or "pound code" or some other variation on "pound"?

  28. Chris said,

    July 19, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    which brings cartoon cussing to the medium of music for the first time (?)

    The band Everclear released a song in the '90s titled "Heartspark Dollarsign".

  29. Tyro said,

    July 19, 2010 @ 9:10 am

    Working in the back room of a store in the US, I once received a box directed to Store £177–obvious to me that it should have been #177, but wondering what thought process confused pound and number quite like that. (I can't remember if it was a box sent directly from China–seems like it wasn't, so non-native confusion shouldn't have been involved.)

  30. Matt McCarty said,

    August 24, 2010 @ 12:23 am

    The # designation is often used in agricultural notations, particularly livestock record keeping. 20 years ago when I took agri-science, the assignment would earn an F if we failed to use the # notation.

  31. Link love: language (28) « Sentence first said,

    March 27, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    [...] Cartoon cussing in Country & Western. [...]

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