Questions about symbols


Is there a name for the dot above the letters i and j?

The dot is just called superscript dot. It was added to the letter i in the Middle Ages to distinguish the letter (in manuscripts) from adjacent vertical strokes in such letters as u, m, and n. J is a variant form of i which emerged at this time and subsequently became a separate letter.

Does the ‘¢’ in the US cent sign stand for ‘cent’?

Yes, it does. It dates back to the early 19th century. Writing a letter with the line through it is a common way of indicating that it is a currency symbol, and not just an ordinary letter of the alphabet.

What is the name of the # symbol?

It has several names. The most common is probably hash. In North American English, it’s sometimes called the pound sign and used as a symbol for pounds weight: this can be confusing for British people for whom a pound sign is £. It’s also known as the number sign in North American English, in contexts such as go to question #2. In a musical context, the symbol is known as a sharp. The picturesque name octothorpe has also been introduced: it’s said to have been invented by an employee of Bell Laboratories in the 1960s, in honour of the American athlete Jim Thorpe (with the octo- part deriving from the symbol’s eight points). In the large form in which it appears on telephones it’s sometimes called  a square.

Recently, the hash sign has acquired a new role. On social networking sites such as Twitter, it’s attached to keywords or phrases so as to identify messages on a particular topic (e.g. #volcano; #Iceland). These keywords or phrases are known as hashtags.

What is the origin of the ‘@’ sign?

This sign originated as a scribe’s quick way of writing the Latin word ad, especially in lists of prices of commodities. It’s usually just known as ‘the at sign’ or ‘the at symbol’:  although it has acquired various nicknames in other languages none of these has so far caught on in English.

What is the origin of the dollar sign ($)?

Many suggestions have been made about the origin of the dollar symbol $, one of the commonest being that it derives from the figure 8, representing the Spanish ‘piece of eight’. However, it actually comes from a handwritten ‘ps’, an abbreviation for ‘peso’ in old Spanish-American books. The $ symbol first occurs in the 1770s, in manuscript documents of English-Americans who had business dealings with Spanish-Americans, and it starts to appear in print after 1800.

The word ‘dollar’ itself derives from the Flemish or Low German word daler (in German taler or thaler), short for Joachimstaler, referring to a coin from the silver mines of Joachimstal, in Bohemia (now Jáchymov in the Czech Republic). The term was later applied to a coin used in the Spanish-American colonies and also in the British North American colonies at the time of the American War of Independence. It was adopted as the name of the US currency unit in the late 18th century.

What is the origin of the pound sign (£)?

This sign is simply a capital letter L, written in an old-fashioned handwriting style and with one or two crossbars to show that it is being used as a symbol or abbreviation. The L stands for the Latin word libra, the name of a Roman unit of weight, which also gave rise to the abbreviation lb for a pound as a measure of weight, and to the French word livre. The symbol for the Japanese yen was probably invented by analogy with the pound and dollar symbols, as it is a capital Y with one or two bars across it.

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