Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Hash of Things

Magazine article The Spectator

Making a Hash of Things

Article excerpt

According to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, every alien race in the universe has independently invented an intoxicating drink called 'jinantonix' or at least something that sounds very similar. It's an idea which probably arose from the fact that, phonetically, 'Gin & Tonic' (or more often 'Gin-Tonic') is on a par with 'OK' or 'Coca-Cola' in being understood in every country on earth. Even languages which use a word for beer that sounds nothing like 'beer' generally refer to a 'jintonic', meaning that 'jinantonix' may well be the only four syllables guaranteed to get you an alcoholic drink in every bar on the planet.

Are there any exceptions? If anyone knows a language (Estonian?

Arapaho? ) where the word for Gin & Tonic is pronounced nothing like Jinantonix, then send a tweet and I'll be delighted to report back - just use the hashtag #gintonic.

Which takes me neatly from the most consistently named thing on earth to its complete opposite. There are about eight different words for it in English, few of which are understood on both sides of the Atlantic. Frenchspeaking Belgians and French-Canadians call it something different from the French themselves. Almost every major language seems to have more than one name for it, with the meaning of these words typically having nothing in common. Oh, and the official name for it is used by almost no one, and yet still manages to be spelled in four different ways. It is, in short, the most semantically and orthographically f***ed-up thing on the planet.

This is the 'octothorpe' (also spelled 'octothorp', 'octathorp' and even 'octatherp') or '#' - better known in the UK as the 'hash key' or 'square key' or 'gate' and known in the US as the 'number sign' or, more confusingly still, as 'the pound sign' (and in Malaysian English as the 'hex sign'). Its use to mean 'Number' (as in 'a #2 pencil') is largely confined to North America and its use to signify 'a pound in weight' is exclusive to the US. …

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