Thursday, February 21, 2013

Language of Confusing: Still Punctual

Nope, I didn’t forget! Today we’ll look at some common (though not every-sentence) forms of punctuation and try to determine why they are what they are.

The name for this one is easy. It’s just a combination of per and centum (hundred). The symbol first showed up in the fifteenth century (although the idea had been around for ages) when an unknown writer decided to use per c° or p c° to symbolize out of 100. The raised circle used to denote the primary and secondary parts of the equation, and it being used with the per c is thought to have been a mistake made in ignorance that just took root. Two centuries later, it turned into per % and then just %.

The degree symbol, which looks a lot like the symbol in the percent sign. In a nutshell, the symbol means a zero exponent and it first came into use in the sixteenth century. Parts of an angle include degrees (zero), minutes (one) and seconds (two) and in calculations, the degrees were given the zero exponent. It then stuck for any use of degrees.

For those unaware, this little guy is commonly known as the pound, number and hash sign, and is formally called the octothorpe. Besides making your computer want to autocorrect to October, it means eight (octo) and…thorpe. Seriously, no one really knows where the “thorpe”came from, just that the word started being used in 1961. Both word and symbol were invented by Bell Labsto be used with telephones. By the way, this is also where the asterisk came from, although that word actually has a historical origin too.

+ and –
Both were first used for addition/subtraction in Germany around 1480, as before then everyone just used words for their problems(ugh, no wonder it took forever to solve things). The + symbol appeared long before, but it had a wide variety of meanings, like unity and perfection, which may be why it was appropriated for use in addition and positivity. As for –, I have no idea. It was just used along with +.

The word dollar comes from the Low German daler and German taler, which is an abbreviation for Joachimstaler, a specific silver coin from 1519. There are a lot of conflicting theories about the symbol, including that it’s derived from the symbol 8 for the Spanish “piece of eight” or perhaps is a mix of the letters p and s, for peso. And those are the more reasonable ones.

Mathboy’s Page
MooT, The Etymology Game (YES!)


  1. I didn't think you'd forgotten. Just gotten bored with the whole endeavor.

    # was for phones? That's fascinating.


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