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Links: Anchors Away

Simon Pitt | Internet | Thursday 21st January 2010

If you're diligently reading through this series in order, welcome back and well done. Back in the very first of these articles I started by working my way through a typical web address, explaining what each bit meant. It's hard to believe, but we're still not yet at the end. In this part we've reached what are known as "anchors". Here's another example:

Clicking this will jump your browser down to the bottom of the page. The page doesn't reload, but your position on it does. This is called an anchor, and it is marked by one of these: #

In Britain, we call these "hash symbols" but in American they're known as "pound signs". This must get very confusing when they talk about £ (pound sterling signs) as well. Or at least it would if the Americans ever spoke about any other currency other than the dollar.

In America it's common to use the # as an abbreviation for pound (the weight) whereas in England the rather unusual abbreviation lb is used.

We're now going to take a brief but etymological aside. These two abbreviations are, surprisingly, linked. The abbreviation lb comes from the Italian word libbra, which in turn comes from the Latin word libra. You still seen this word around these days since it's the starsign for people born in October. And, as many people know, it means "balance". In Italy, this represented a unit of weight that was pretty much the same as a pound. (As an aside to the aside, the technical name for this system of weights isn't, as many people think, "imperial" but "avoirdupois", and was invented in about 1303. The word comes from the old French "aveir de peis", meaning "goods of weight".)

The Italian's abbreviated the word libbra to lb, the abbreviation that is still used in England today. However, the Italian business clerks used to draw a line across the letters and it seems that this hurried way of writing it turned lb into #.

But what do we call this noughts-and-crosses-board-of-a-symbol?

In the 1960's Bell Laboratories realised they needed two new buttons on their phones; a * and a #. Don Macpherson, an engineer at the company, decided that the symbol needed a name. Macpherson was a big fan of Jim Thorpe, the 1912 Olympic gold Athlete, and decided on a novel way of honouring him. He coined the word "octothorpe" for the eight pointed # symbol from octo- meaning eight and Jim Thorpe's last name. Or so some people say.

Others say that the symbol is named after the eighteenth century English philanthropist James Edward Oglethorpe who secured a charter for the colony of Georgia in 1732 as a refuge for debtors. Why he would be immortalised in a symbol on the bottom right of a phone is not explained.

Scholars of old Norse agree that octomost likely comes from eight, but suggest that the second part of the word comes from the word "Thorpe" meaning village (as in "Scunthorpe" - Village of Scum). In their learned way, they suggest that it was named "octothorpe" because it looks like a village surrounded by eight fields.

Finally, Douglas A Kerr came up with another suggestion in 2006. He suggested that it was a joke between two friends John C Schaak and Herbert T Uthlaut, again from Bell Laboratories. When asked to come up with a name for the symbol they immediately suggested "octothorpe". When asked why they said that it had no etylomoligical basis. Instead, they were guided by one principle: to make it as had for non-English speakers to say as possible. Consequently, they added the "th" sound, a sound missing from most languages.

Unfortunately, there is almost no evidence for any of this. Indeed, many people don't even agree that a # is called an "octothorpe" at all. The first time the word appeared in print wasn't until 1974. Despite some engineers trying to encourage the use of the name "octothorpe", it has never been widely, universally or officially accepted, and remains a bit of a joke between telephone engineers. Well, they have to have some jokes.

But, anyway, back to the point at hand, and the hash symbol used as part of an anchor. Anchors (or "fragment identifiers", to give them their proper name) are most commonly seen as "back to the top" links, used by people too lazy to scroll or who don't know that pressing "ctrl" and "home" will take you back to the top anyway.

"Back to the top" links imply that scrolling all that way is so much effort and that they'll do it for you. Sometimes these even combine with javascript to create a smooth scrolling effect. This is perhaps more useful when jumping to specific parts of the page. When using an anchor the jump is near instant since the browser does not have to load any additional content. The anchored text jumps right at the top of the browser, which can throw users since most people read from the middle of the page.

Anchors aren't used that much these days, partly becase users generally prefer to click rather than scroll (that is, they'd prefer all the content was on one page and they click on a link to get to more bits, rather than have a long article with subheadings). When all the content is on a single page, anchors become meaningless. Anchors now are consigned to long and often boring pieces of documentation.

More recently, the hash symbol has gained greater publicity from Twitter. There is has started to be used as the "trending topic" symbol. Of course, remembering our reserved character Uncle Ernie, if you want to search for the trending topic:


You have to encode the hash to %23 and get:

The idea of appending a hash tag to words to create trending topics was created by Twitter users to find a way of grouping information. Once again, the basic Twitter structure just wasn't designed for the number of people using it, and the community that had built up had to invent their own hacks to make it work.

To be continued. Next time, we'll have a look at the dangers of links and explain how you can use a link to destory someone's political career.


(Now you're down here, why not jump back to the top?)


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