CLOSE
Original image
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Origins of All 30 NBA Team Names

Original image
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Hornets were supposed to be the Spirit, while the Grizzlies were almost named the Mounties. Why is a team in Los Angeles nicknamed the Lakers, and what's a team called the Jazz doing in Utah? Here's the story behind the nicknames of all 30 teams.

Atlanta Hawks

Getty Images

In 1948, the cities of Moline and Rock Island, IL, and Davenport, IA—collectively known as the Tri-Cities at the time—were awarded a team in the National Basketball League. The team was nicknamed the Blackhawks, who, like Chicago's hockey team, were named after the Sauk Indian Chief Black Hawk. When the team moved to Milwaukee in 1951, the nickname was shortened to Hawks. The franchise retained the shortened moniker for subsequent moves to St. Louis and finally Atlanta in 1968.

Boston Celtics

Celtics coach Brad Stevens

Getty Images

Team owner Walter Brown personally chose Celtics over Whirlwinds, Olympians, and Unicorns (yes, Unicorns) as the nickname for Boston's Basketball Association of America team in 1946. Despite the warnings of one of his publicity staffers, who told Brown, "No team with an Irish name has ever won a damned thing in Boston," Brown liked the winning tradition of the nickname; the New York Celtics were a successful franchise during the 1920s.

Brooklyn Nets

Getty Images

The New Jersey Americans joined the American Basketball Association in 1967 and moved to New York the following season. The team was renamed the New York Nets, which conveniently rhymed with Jets and Mets, two of the Big Apple's other professional franchises. Before the 1977-78 season, the team returned to New Jersey but kept its nickname. In 1994, the Nets were reportedly considering changing their nickname to the Swamp Dragons to boost its marketing efforts. The franchise relocated to Brooklyn in 2012.

Charlotte Hornets

Getty Images

The three finalists in the name-the-team contest for Charlotte's 2004 expansion franchise were Bobcats, Dragons, and Flight. Owner Bob Johnson was fond of BOBcats, but some of the league's players were less than impressed. "It sounds like a girls' softball team to me," Steve Kerr told reporters at the time. "I guess it shows there aren't many good nicknames left to be had." Perhaps Kerr was right. Bobcats became the Charlotte Hornets in 2014, reuniting the city with its previous NBA franchise's original nickname.

Where did Hornets come from? In 1987, George Shinn and his ownership group announced that Spirit would be the nickname of Charlotte's prospective expansion franchise. Fans voiced their displeasure, and it didn't help that some fans associated the nickname with the PTL Club, a Charlotte-based evangelical Christian television program that was the subject of an investigative report by the Charlotte Observer for its fundraising activities. Shinn decided to sponsor a name-the-team contest and had fans vote on six finalists. More than 9000 ballots were cast and Hornets won by a landslide, beating out Knights, Cougars, Spirit, Crowns, and Stars. Afterwards, Shinn noted that the nickname had some historical significance; during the Revolutionary War, a British commander reportedly referred to the area around Charlotte as a "hornet’s nest of rebellion."

Chicago Bulls

Chicago Bulls
Getty Images

According to the Chicago Bulls Encyclopedia, team owner Richard Klein was brainstorming nicknames for his new franchise in 1966 and wanted a name that portrayed Chicago's status as the meat capital of the world. Another theory is that Klein admired the strength and toughness of bulls. Klein was considering Matadors and Toreadors when his young son exclaimed, "Dad, that's a bunch of bull!" The rest is somewhat dubious history.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Lebron and Wade
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Fans voted Cavaliers the team nickname in 1970 in a poll conducted by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. The other finalists included Jays, Foresters, Towers, and Presidents. The Presidents nickname was presumably an allusion to the fact that seven former U.S. Presidents were born in Ohio, second only to Virginia. Jerry Tomko, who suggested Cavaliers in the contest, wrote, "Cavaliers represent a group of daring fearless men, whose life pact was never surrender, no matter what the odds." (Tomko's son, Brett, went on to become a Major League pitcher.)

Dallas Mavericks

Getty Images

A Dallas radio station sponsored a name-the-team contest and recommended the finalists to team owner Donald Carter, who ultimately chose Mavericks over Wranglers and Express. The 41 fans who suggested Mavericks each won a pair of tickets to the season opener and one of those fans, Carla Springer, won a drawing for season tickets. Springer, a freelance writer, said the nickname "represents the independent, flamboyant style of the Dallas people." That's certainly an apt description for current team owner Mark Cuban.

Denver Nuggets

Getty Images

Denver's ABA team was originally known as the Rockets. When the team was preparing to move to the NBA in 1974, they needed a new nickname, as Rockets was already claimed by the franchise in Houston. Nuggets, an allusion to the city's mining tradition and the Colorado Gold Rush during the late 1850s and early 1860s, was chosen via a name-the-team contest.

Detroit Pistons

Getty Images

The Pistons trace their roots to Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they were known as the Zollner Pistons. What's a Zollner Piston? A piston manufactured by then-team owner Fred Zollner, who named the club after his personal business. When the team moved to Detroit in 1957, Zollner dropped his name from the nickname but retained Pistons. The name was fitting for the Motor City.

Golden State Warriors

Getty Images

The Philadelphia Warriors, named after the 1920s team that played in the American Basketball League, won the championship in the inaugural 1946-47 season of the Basketball Association of America. The Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco after the 1961-62 season and retained their nickname. When the team relocated across the Bay to Oakland in 1971, they were renamed the Golden State Warriors.

Houston Rockets

Getty Images

The Houston Rockets originally called San Diego home. Rockets was chosen via a name-the-team contest and was a reference to the city's theme, "A City In Motion." Liquid-fueled Atlas rockets were also being manufactured in San Diego. When the team moved to Houston in 1971, it made perfectly good sense to keep the name, as Houston was home to a NASA space center.

Indiana Pacers

Indiana Pacers
Getty Images

According to Michael Leo Donovan's book on team nicknames, Yankees to Fighting Irish: What's Behind Your Favorite Team's Name, the Pacers' nickname was decided upon in 1967 by the team's original investors, including attorney Richard Tinkham. The nickname is a reference to Indiana's rich harness and auto racing history. Pacing describes one of the main gaits for harness racing, while pace cars are used for auto races, such as the Indianapolis 500.

Los Angeles Clippers

Los Angeles Clippers
Getty Images

When the NBA's Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego in 1978, the owners wanted to rebrand the team with a new nickname. They settled on Clippers, a popular type of ship during the 19th century. San Diego had been home to the Conquistadors/Sails of the ABA during the 1970s. Donald Sterling bought the Clippers during the 1981-82 season and relocated them to his native Los Angeles in 1984. He lost all respect in San Diego but kept the Clippers name.

Los Angeles Lakers

Lonzo Ball, Los Angeles Lakers
Getty Images

How many natural lakes are there in Los Angeles? The short answer: Less than 10,000. When a pair of investors relocated the Detroit Gems of the National Basketball League to Minneapolis before the 1947 season, they sought a name that would ring true with the team's new home. Given that Minnesota is "The Land of 10,000 Lakes," they settled on Lakers. When the Lakers moved to Los Angeles before the 1960 season, their nickname was retained, in part because of the tradition the team had established in Minnesota.

Memphis Grizzlies

Marc Gasol
Getty Images

When Vancouver was awarded an expansion franchise in 1994 to begin play the following season, the team's owners had tentative plans to name the team the Mounties. The Royal Mounted Canadian Police and fans alike objected, so team officials resumed their search for a name. The local newspaper sponsored a name-the-team contest, which club officials monitored before choosing Grizzlies, an indigenous species to the area, over Ravens. When the team relocated to Memphis before the 2001-02 season, FedEx was prepared to offer the Grizzlies $100 million to rename the team the Express, but the NBA rejected the proposal.

Miami Heat

Getty Images

In October 1986, the owners of Miami's expansion franchise selected Stephanie Freed's Heat submission from more than 20,000 entries, which also included Sharks, Tornadoes, Beaches, and Barracudas.

Milwaukee Bucks

Getty Images

Despite Wisconsin’s hunting tradition, the most popular entry in the contest to name Milwaukee’s NBA franchise wasn’t Bucks. It was Robins. The judges overruled the public and decided on a more indigenous (and much stronger) name. The choice could have been much worse: Skunks was among the other entries.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Getty Images

The ownership group for Minnesota's prospective franchise chose Timberwolves through a name-the-team contest in 1986. The nickname beat out Polars by a 2-1 margin in the final vote, which was conducted in 333 of the state's 842 city councils. Tim Pope, who was one of the first fans to nominate Timberwolves, won a trip to the NBA All-Star Game. Pope submitted 10 nicknames in all, including Gun Flints. "I thought a two-word name would win," he told a reporter. The most popular entry in the contest was Blizzard, but the team wanted a nickname that was more unique to its home state. "Minnesota is the only state in the lower 48 with free-roaming packs of timber wolves," a team official said.

New Orleans Pelicans

Getty Images

Soon after Tom Benson purchased the New Orleans Hornets in 2012, the team announced they were going to change their name. According to Yahoo's Marc J. Spears, they "considered the nicknames Krewe (groups of costumed paraders in the annual Mardi Gras carnival in New Orleans) and Brass," but settled on Pelicans—after the brown pelican, Louisiana's state bird.

New York Knicks

Getty Images

The term "Knickerbockers" referred specifically to pants rolled up just below the knee by Dutch settlers in the New World during the 1600s. Many of these settlers found homes in and around New York City, where a cartoon drawing of Father Knickerbocker became a prominent symbol of the city. In 1845, baseball's first organized team was nicknamed the Knickerbocker Nine and the name was evoked again in 1946 when New York was granted a franchise in the Basketball Association of America. Team founder Ned Irish reportedly made the decision to call the team the Knickerbockers—supposedly after pulling the name out of a hat.

Oklahoma City Thunder

Getty Images

When the Seattle SuperSonics relocated to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season, fans voted on potential nicknames from an original list of 64 possibilities. Thunder was chosen over Renegades, Twisters, and Barons, and the name was extremely well received. The team set sales records for the first day after the nickname was revealed. "There's just all kinds of good thunder images and thoughts, and the in-game experience of Thunder," team chairman Clay Bennett told reporters. The SuperSonics had been named for the Supersonic Transport (SST) project, which had been awarded to Boeing. The company has a large plant in the Seattle area.

Orlando Magic

Getty Images

When the Orlando Sentinel sponsored a name-the-team contest for Orlando's prospective expansion franchise, Challengers—an allusion to the space shuttle that crashed in 1986—was the most popular suggestion. Other entries included Floridians, Juice, Orbits, Astronauts, Aquamen, and Sentinels, but the panel of judges, including Orlando team officials who reviewed the suggestions, decided to go with Magic. The name is an obvious nod to the tourism-rich city's main attraction, Disney World.

Philadelphia 76ers

Getty Images

The Syracuse Nationals were relocated to the City of Brotherly Love in 1963 and the team was renamed the 76ers, an allusion to the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia in 1776.

Phoenix Suns

Phoenix Suns
Getty Images

General manager Jerry Colangelo, only 28 at the time, settled on a name for his expansion franchise using a name-the-team contest in 1968. Colangelo chose Suns over Scorpions, Rattlers, and Thunderbirds, among the other suggestions included in the 28,000 entries. One lucky fan won $1,000 and season tickets as part of the contest, which included such obscure entries as White Wing Doves, Sun Lovers, Poobahs, Dudes, and Cactus Giants.

Portland Trail Blazers

Getty Images

In 1970, Portland was granted an expansion franchise in the NBA and team officials announced a name-the-team contest. Of the more than 10,000 entries, Pioneers was the most popular, but was ruled out because nearby Lewis & Clark College was already using the nickname. Another popular entry was Trail Blazers, whose logo is supposed to represent five players on one team playing against five players from another team.

Sacramento Kings

Getty Images

The Kings' royal lineage stretches all the way back to the founding of the National Basketball League's Rochester Royals in 1945. The Royals retained their nickname after a move to Cincinnati in 1957 and became the Kansas City-Omaha Kings (soon dropping the Omaha) through a name-the-team contest in 1972. The name remained unchanged when the franchise relocated to California in 1985.

San Antonio Spurs

Getty Images

A group of San Antonio investors purchased the Dallas Chaparrals from the American Basketball Association in 1973 and decided to hold a public contest to rename the team. Five thousand entries with over 500 names were submitted. After reconsidering their first decision to call the team the Aztecs (several teams already used that name), the judges (investors and local press representatives) settled on Spurs. It may have just been a coincidence that one of the team's main investors, Red McCombs, was born in Spur, Texas.

Toronto Raptors

Getty Images

The ownership group of Toronto's prospective expansion team conducted extensive marketing research across Canada in 1994 and held a nationwide vote that helped team officials come up with a list of potential nicknames. Raptors, which Jurassic Park helped popularize the year before, was eventually chosen over runners-up Bobcats and Dragons.

Utah Jazz

Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Getty Images

No, Utah isn't known for its Jazz. The team originated in New Orleans in 1974 and club officials decided to keep the name after relocating to Salt Lake City in 1979. The Jazz nickname was originally chosen through a name-the-team contest, which produced seven other finalists: Dukes, Crescents, Pilots, Cajuns, Blues, Deltas, and Knights. Deltas would've translated to Salt Lake City rather well (the airline of the same name has a hub there), while Cajuns may have been even worse than Jazz.

Washington Wizards

Getty Images

In the early 1990s, Washington Bullets owner Abe Pollin was becoming frustrated with the association of his team's nickname and gun violence. After Pollin's friend, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated, Pollin decided to take action and announced his plans to rename the team. (Though Dan Steinberg of D.C. Sports Bog wrote a very detailed history of the name change, and called into question the impact Rabin's death had on the decision.)

A name-the-team contest was held and fans voted on a list of finalists that included Wizards, Dragons, Express, Stallions, and Sea Dogs. Not long after Wizards was announced as the winning name before the 1997-98 season, the local NAACP chapter president complained that the nickname carried Ku Klux Klan associations. Previous nicknames for the franchise when they were still in Chicago include Packers and Zephyrs.

This post was originally published in 2009.

Original image
Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
arrow
entertainment
12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
Original image
Mabel Livingstone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Lists
The First Known Uses of 6 Common Typographic Symbols
Original image
iStock

Many of the most common symbols on our keyboards have fascinating origin stories. Some, such as the zero, we now take for granted—yet the idea of denoting an absence of value was not present in Western mathematics until introduced from the East. Other symbols, such as the hashtag or at-sign, had a variety of uses until the internet ushered in a new way of communicating and fixed them with the meanings we know today. Below are six examples of the first known usage and subsequent history of some of the most common typographic symbols.

1. AT SIGN // @

The @ (or at-sign) is usually dated to 1536 in a letter from a Florentine merchant, Francesco Lapi, who used it to mean a unit of wine called “amphorae.” But a Spanish researcher claims to have found an even earlier usage in a 1448 document, where the symbol also referred to a unit of measurement (even today, Spaniards call the @ symbol arroba, which is also a unit of weight, and some other Romance languages have similar dual meanings). Either way, the researchers think that the symbol then moved to Northern Europe, where it eventually gained the meaning of “at the price.” Other explanations have also been offered, but whatever the exact root of the symbol, its meaning eventually became known as shorthand for at, and it was generally used in written financial transactions—for example, in noting “Bob sells James 4 apples @ $1.”

The sign had largely fallen out of use by the early 1970s, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was working at what is now BBN Technologies, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tomlinson, who was working for the government on a forerunner of the internet, was trying to figure out how to address messages sent from one computer to another when he noticed the little-used @ on his computer keyboard, and used it to send a prototype email. This precedent was soon adopted as the internet developed, and the at-sign is now, of course, central to our lives.

2. ZERO // 0

The absence of a value is a complex concept, one that many ancient civilizations struggled with. The idea of a zero ultimately came to the West from the mathematicians of India, where, as in a few other cultures, zero was initially used as a placeholder, for example to indicate a lack of units, as in the number 101.

The earliest surviving usage of a zero in India has been traced to an ancient mathematical text known as the Bakhshali manuscript, which is held at Oxford’s Bodleian Library. In September 2017, radiocarbon dating indicated that the manuscript was produced as early as the 3rd or 4th century—providing us with the first known usage of zero some 500 years earlier than previously thought. As Oxford’s Bodleian Library says, “the symbol in the Bakhshali manuscript is particularly significant for two reasons. Firstly, it is this dot that evolved to have a hollow centre and became the symbol that we use as zero today. Secondly, it was only in India that this zero developed into a number in its own right, hence creating the concept and the number zero that we understand today."

The manuscript itself was discovered buried in a field in 1881 in what is today Pakistan. Written on 70 delicate leaves of birch bark, historians think it represents a training manual for Silk Road traders, teaching them concepts of arithmetic.

3. HASHTAG // #

Hashtag on an old typewriter key
iStock

The origin of the hashtag (or pound sign as it's traditionally known in the U.S.) comes from scribes writing shorthand for the Latin libra pondo, which translates as "pound by weight." The abbreviation they used was lb, which was sometimes misread as 16. So, scribes took to drawing a line through the top of the two letters, which over time developed into the now familiar #. In the 1960s, the pound sign was chosen by Bell Laboratories to be a function key on their newly designed telephone keypad. (The Bell Labs team fondly nicknamed the symbol the “octothorpe,” possibly in honor of athlete Jim Thorpe.) Fast-forward to 2007, when early Twitter users wanted to be able to group and filter their feeds, so developer Chris Messina suggested they appropriate the method used in IRC (Internet Relay Chat) whereby users employed the pound sign or "hashtag" to signpost what they were chatting about. (Programmers knew the symbol as the hash, which was now being used to "tag" content.) This simple method soon caught on, and today the hashtag has become indelibly linked to the rise of social media.

4. ELLIPSIS // …

Originally, periods of silence were marked textually with a series of hyphens, but today the symbol of choice is the , a.k.a. the ellipsis. Dr. Anne Toner of Cambridge University spent years researching the ellipsis and finally discovered what she thinks is its first use—an English translation of Roman dramatist Terence’s play Andria printed in 1588. Although the play used hyphens instead of dots, the general idea caught on rapidly. (Toner notes that although there are only four “ellipses” in the 1588 translation, there are 29 in the 1627 version.) By the 18th century, dots started to replace the dashes, which an assistant professor from Southeastern University suggests may be connected to a medieval piece of punctuation called subpuncting or underdotting, which generally indicated something was incorrectly copied.

5. AMPERSAND // &

Ampersand symbol on an old metal block
iStock

The ampersand originated in Latin when the word et (meaning and) was written in cursive script as a ligature (in which one or more letters are written together as a single glyph). One of the earliest examples was found daubed in graffiti on the walls of a house in Pompeii, where it was preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. By the 8th century the ampersand became a recognizably distinct character, but the word ampersand did not come into use until the late 18th/19th century, when English school children would recite "and per se and" meaning “and by itself means and” to help remember the symbol (per se being Latin for "by itself"). One of the most thorough investigations into the typographic history of the ampersand comes courtesy of German graphic designer Jan Tschichold, who in 1953 published The am­persand: its ori­gin and de­vel­op­ment, in which he collected numerous examples of the ampersand from the 1st century onwards, visually charting its developing form.

6. PLUS SIGN // +

A variety of ceramic plus signs
iStock

The plus sign used for addition in mathematics likely derives from a shorthand ligature for the Latin et meaning “and” and was probably in use for a long time before a surviving example appeared in print. One candidate for the earliest surviving usage is in French philosopher and polymath Nicole Oresme's Algorismus proportionum, a manuscript handwritten between 1356 and 1361, although scholars debate whether it's a true plus symbol. The first use of a plus sign in a printed book is more definitive, and can be found in a 1489 edition of Johannes Widmann’s Mercantile Arithmetic. Widmann also uses the minus sign for the first time in print in this volume—although both plus and minus signs relate not to addition and subtraction but to surpluses and deficits in business accounting. After this usage, the plus sign began to appear more frequently in German mathematical texts, and first appeared in an English text in 1557 in Robert Recorde’s The Whetstone of Witte—which also introduced the equals sign.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER