It goes by different names. Some people call it a pound sign. Some people call it a number or numeral sign. Some people call it a hash mark.
But the true name, the real name, of this typographic mark — # — is “octothorp.”
It gets its name from cartography, where – as Robert Bringhurst points out in The Elements of Typographic Style – “it is a traditional symbol for village: eight fields around a central square. That is the source of its name. Octothorp means eight fields.”
Knowing this symbol’s true name probably won’t change your life. I’ll grant that.
But it strikes me as being related to a similar problem we have with ourselves. In other words, we have a hard time remembering what our real name is, too. We have a hard time keeping track of our actual identity.
We have a hard time remembering what our real name is, too. We have a hard time keeping track of our actual identity.
This presents itself in different ways.
For example, because of all of the names we pick up in this lifetime – parent, child, employer, employee, consumer, producer, success, failure – we might forget that our true name is “beloved child of God.”
Or perhaps we forget that we’re Neither Beast Nor God, as Gilbert Meilaender reminds us in a recent book of that title. In other words, we’re more than simply animals – we have, as Genesis puts it, been made “in the image of God” – but we aren’t God.
We also struggle sometimes with accepting the fact that we aren’t perfect. We are, in theological terms, sinful. Some people are offended by this Christian doctrine. It’s so negative, some will say. When in fact, the doctrine of sin is simply an attempt to name things as they are – to name ourselves and the situation we find ourselves in during this lifetime accurately.
And that, as Marilynne Robinson in an essay from The Death of Adam, points out, is a form of grace: “The belief that we are all sinners gives us excellent grounds for forgiveness and self-forgiveness, and is kindlier than any expectation that we might be saints, even while it affirms the standards all of us fail to attain.”
Knowing who we are – knowing our true identity and our true name – is an important part of the Christian life, and is far better than the alternatives: either not knowing who we are, or being mistaken about who we are. You might think of that the next time you see an octothorp.
Question: How does the world name you? How do you name yourself? How does the name “Beloved, Child of God” sound?