5 Symbols You've Always Used But Probably Can't Name

You may think you know the names of these symbols, but chances are, you refer to them by their slang terms. Here are their real names and back stories.

1. The Octothorpe


This familiar symbol is known by many names, depending on the context. One of its most famous roles is that of the number sign, but many of us know it as the pound sign, given its historical and continued presence on our phones. The more digitally-inclined may recognize the symbol first as a hash (a hashtag refers to a combination of a word with the octothorpe).

The true origin of the word is hazy, and thus its etymology is only somewhat clear. "Octo" refers to the eight points of the four crossed lines, or the eight spaces surrounding the center square. "Thorpe" may refer to the old English word "thorp," meaning "hamlet"; the symbol resembles a small town surrounded by eight fields. Alternatively, the fragment supposedly refers to famous athlete Jim Thorpe.

2. The Grawlix


If you've ever been mad enough to use profanity in a visual medium (not that this ever happens on PolicyMic), you may have considered using a grawlix. Coined by cartoonist Mort Walker, the grawlix is the archetypal self-filter for those words that just aren't appropriate. Whether it's those @#$% editors who've got you down, the &%$# government taxing you to death, or simply your !%$@ car that won't start, be polite, and use a grawlix.

3. The Obelus


It's time to strike the phrase "division sign" from your vocabulary. Obelus, the somewhat-imposing name for the horizontal line flanked by two dots, is the correct way to identify this symbol. Though you might only get to use this one when you're helping elementary school children with their math homework, at least you'll impress them.

4. The Apetail


Compared to the others on this list, there is considerably less agreement over what to call the "@." Known also as the "at sign," "commercial at," "ampersat," or simply the "at symbol," you encounter the apetail every day. Most people will understand what you mean if you simply say "at" in the right context, such as when reading an email address aloud. Personally, I think apetail is just the most fun.

5. The Interrobang


You may not have used this symbol yet, but you'll soon want to. Perfect for that exclamation that also conveys bewilderment, the interrobang is a wonderful fusion of two of our most basic punctuation marks. Some have argued, though, that the interrobang eliminates the subtle difference between "!?" and "?!". Perhaps the bewilderment of a specific situation is more salient than the shock. Or vice versa. Regardless, for those of us who speak a language other than English, there is the gnaborretni, the inverted interrobang.

BONUS TRIVIUM: The obsenicon

Not a fan of "grawlix"? You've got another option. Obsenicon, a portmanteau of "obscene" and "icon," employs the same idea of substituting other symbols for profanity. In terms of seniority, obsenicon has been around a couple deacdes longer. In the end, you'll impress others with your improved vocabulary, whether you choose to use grawlix or obsenicon. This author doesn't really give a #$%@.

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Drew Miller

Skeptic, humanist, and supporter of intellectual heterodoxy. Drinks regularly from Russell's Teapot. Impatient toward bigotry and dogma. Loves politics, satire, and a good argument.

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