Octothorpe, quadrathorpe, bithorpe

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?”



    • Keith – This is clearly a deep philosophical and etymological question that demands major multi-year research funding! On the one hand, we have the position that if ‘thorpe’ means ‘point’ then indeed, a period would be a ‘monothorpe’ or just simply a ‘thorpe’. But not so fast! An alternate, heretical position emerges that suggests that because writing is two-dimensional, a point is not ‘half a bithorpe’ and has no dimensionality whatsoever. Accordingly, a period, which is visible on the page, is not a thorpe at all but a really small sphere, and that the bithorpe is the smallest unit in the thorpe typology. Clearly this debate will rage for ages so we’re probably best to just let it go now.

  1. Hi, not an expert at all but let me disagree a byte, he-he:

    >… a quadrathorpe is an equals sign (half an octothorpe) and a bithorpe is a hyphen, with four and two endpoints respectively. … that if ‘thorpe’ means ‘point’…

    If we follow that assumption:
    * symbol should be called pentathorn
    # symbol should be called octAthorn

    It happened one of my favorite musicians to be called Billy Thorpe, which forced me years ago to see what ‘thorp[e]’ means, according to SOED:
    Now arch. & Hist. Also thorpe.
    [Old English þrop, (after Old Norse) þorp = Old Frisian thorp, Old Saxon þorp (Dutch dorp), Old & mod. High German dorf, Old Norse þorp, Gothic þaurp field, from Germanic.]
    A hamlet, a small village.

    My view in short: ‘thorpe’ means ‘field/plane/dimension’:
    # is quadrathorpe
    = is bithorpe
    – is monothorpe

    The article at ‘World Wide Words’ is very good, don’t take those Bell Labs jokers seriously.
    Thanks to the ‘coiners’, logic plays here no more.

    You suggest two-pointed for bithorpe i.e. a line (hyphen!), in my view not so, it should be ‘=’ whereas monothorpe/singlethorpe would be a hyphen.
    Speaking strictly a dot is a cross-section of two monoplanes, while a line a cross-section of two biplanes.
    The confusion comes from a dot being the result of crossing two lines.
    From a human/written perspective a WRITTEN point (or dot) in one/two/three/four/… dimensional realms is still a dot.

    To me, all these nifty *thorpe words imply number of fields/planes i.e. dimensions, meaning single-plane or mono-plane, bi-plane, …
    Quite the same: bi-thorpe and bi-plane, right?
    Commonly, most people call the modern aircrafts PLANES not MONOPLANES (which is fully all-right).
    Playing a bit here: there were aircrafts with three sets of wings, that is, tri-planes or even better: tri-thorpes.

    And the beautiful multithorpe should enter boldly as well, a synonym for multi-dimensional.

    Not by the way, I salute you Mr.Chrisomalis for your rare words diggings, way to go.

    • I have followed your fine work and publications in this field for years and recognize how you almost singlehandedly continue to carry the torch for logical coherence in a field fraught with half-baked notions and intellectual slackness.

      Clearly, you lay the groundwork for a general theory of n-thorpes, which stands beyond my competence to offer, but I may still speculate if you have not limited yourself to flat, planar space? What about hyperbolic and spherical geometries? Are thorpes in these different geometries isothorpic to analogous thorpes in other geometries? Were I more familiar with the details of geometry in general, I might already know the answer to this question: but what about the curved tilde? Is it meaningfully tropothorpic? How would one distinguish the virgule from hyphen? Thorpologically, are the em-dash, en-dash, and hyphen identical?

      Of course, a certain bad faith gets involved in asking these questions, since it seems the original neologism served only to specify a property of thorpes as a count. But I am sympathetic to raising these additional questions, since they can only broaden and more thoroughly contextualize our understanding of the full range of thorpes.

      All this said, my main point, of course: for all of your fine work here, it seems you’ve begged the question. If you have meaningfully dealt with and answered the–admittedly popularized–question whether or not the period presents a monothorpe or not, this does not yet discount the possibility of a monothorpe in some other form. Perhaps we simply can’t represent the monothorpe on paper, and this is part of the problem, though I am sure you recall Binwelder’s (1995)* “Stochastic Events in Undergarments: Some Implications for Dancing,” where–admittedly in a very loose fashion, consonant with the type of undergarment under discussion, he suggested that we might understand the monothorpe as a colon.

      Notwithstanding your reframing of the matter in terms of planes and intersections, it still seems a monothorpe in some sense must be a segment with only one end-point (speaking in the common vernacular, I mean). And the only candidate that suggests itself to me in that sense is time, or more properly, the universe. In as much as the universe (or time) has no beginning, the “edge” of its expansion thus forms the visible “end” of a single-pointed segment.

      The mystics will not be astonished that the (mathematical) point and the (entire) cosmos turn out to be thorpologically identical. That’s what they’ve been saying all along.

      *Binwleder, GGW (1995) Stoachastic events in undergarments: some implications for dancing. International Journal of Decision-Problems in Lingerie, 66(2): 316-922.

  2. Doubtless, the quest for the (magnetic) monothorpe will continue to receive funding from the Lysenkos at the Quackery Department–never any shortage of quomodocunquizing* where this sort of thing gets involved.

    *I have you to thank, of course, for this alerting me to this ghastly and useful word. I have actually brought it up in polite conversation; well, perhaps the conversation wasn’t so polite in the final analysis. In its specific meaning, quomodocunquize seems as necessary to keep around as the recognition of the transformation from the (social) good of a commodity–as something commodius–into something merely a (material) good. As also the insight, perhaps instigated in English rather than Latin for once, that cupidity specifically means a “love of wealth”. Very useful distinctions carried by these words. I’d say it pays to increase your word power, but not only would I prefer not to invoke Reader’s Digest, that very phrase itself reflects yet another monetized metaphor. Meanwhile, thank you again.

  3. Pingback: Cistercian number magic of the Boy Scouts « Glossographia

  4. If you look up the etymology of “thorpe”, it comes from Old English meaning “village” (in turn from Old Scandinavian, Old German). And, with deep digging, “octothorpe” is a village with eight roads. Therefore, a “quadrathorpe” is not an “equals sign” but rather the extended ASCII character: 0xA4 (Currency Sign) “¤”, e.g., a village with four roads.

    • Thanks for your comment. There is definitely some folk etymology going around about the ‘village of eight roads’ interpretation. Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be any evidence to support the idea that the inventor of the word had any awareness of the ‘thorpe = village’ association. And in any case, wouldn’t ‘octothorpe’ mean ‘eight villages’ under that etymology?

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