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The Wiki Man

The Wiki Man: Making a hash of things

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.

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

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.

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. French-speaking 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. The British English ‘hash’ is probably a corruption of ‘hatch’.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, in France it is usually called dièse, as in the song lyrics

Tous ceux qui sont amoureux, tapez deux
Tous ceux qui ont du chagrin, tapez un
Tous ceux qui sont mal à l’aise, tapez dièse
Et si l’amour t’a fait mal, tape étoile.

Yet dièse is a misnomer, referring to the ‘sharp’ musical notation sign not the hash key — the two are technically different (it’s a question of which lines are slanting). Perhaps for this reason, French-speaking Belgians and Canadians prefer ‘carré’, meaning square.

In Spanish, the equivalent word is apparently almohadilla, the diminutive of an Arabic word for pillow. (It is also, sweetly, the word Spaniards use for the soft little pads underneath a cat’s paw). In Italian it is cancelletto, which is apparently nothing to do with cancellation, but means ‘little gate’. In German it is sometimes Die Raute-Taste (or ‘the rhombus key’) or Doppelkreuz. In Portuguese it is ‘terminal’ or ‘cardinal’ or ‘jogo-da-velha’, meaning ‘noughts and crosses’.

None of which would matter at all, until that point in the next six months when you, along with many smart Britons holidaying abroad, craftily buy a pay-as-you-go French/Italian/Portuguese/Spanish SIM for your mobile phone, thus avoiding the roaming charges imposed by mobile operators. A week later, when you need to recharge using a voucher you have bought from Auchan or Pingo Doce or whatever, just when you think you have mastered the foreign-language instructions, you will be asked to input a 16-digit number followed by something totally bizarre about a pillow or a timber-yard. When in doubt, assume this means ‘press the hash key’.

Rory Sutherland is vice-chairman of Ogilvy Group UK


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