The hashtag. ‘#’. You’ve probably used one. Maybe to promote a product or brand, maybe to show excitement or emphasize something. But have you ever wondered why you were using it? Do you even know what a ‘#’ is called? What did you even call ‘#’ when you just read it? Lets have a look into the symbols odd history.
hashtag n. (on social media web sites and applications) a word or phrase preceded by a hash and used to identify messages relating to a specific topic; (also) the hash symbol itself, when used in this way.
So that’s what the OED has to say about it, but that still leaves a lot of questions. What is the hash symbol’s actual name? How did it become associated with Twitter? Why do some people insist on saying it in the real world #annoying?
To tell the story of the symbol we must first go all the way back to Ancient Rome. It began life meaning ‘pound in weight’, or Libra Pondo if you want to get all Roman about it. Back then it was abbreviated as lb (so that’s where that comes from too), often with a line across the top – ℔ – to show the letters were connected. Through scribe speed and laziness lb started to visually morph.
Over the years the symbol’s use and popularity continued enough to make it onto typewriter keyboards. It was still used for pound but it was taking on other meanings too, such as ‘number sign’.
Now we skip ahead again, this time to the invention of the push button telephone. To even up the design of the keyboard and to give users extra options on phone menus the * and # symbols were added either side of the 0 key. The * and # symbol’s were chosen because phone menus would be written on computers and those symbols were on QWERTY keyboards and incorporated into coding languages.
Interestingly the phone company wasn’t sure what to call the # symbol so invented a new name for it. The hash symbol would forever be known as… The Octotherp. And then the Octothorpe. No one knows how that changed but it did.
Now fast forward to the present day. Or the very recent past I suppose.
At 4:25pm on the 23rd August 2007, Chris Messina posted this tweet in anticipation of an event called BarCamp.
The idea was simple, by adding # he had found a super unique way for people to search for the event. The modern hashtag was born.
Messina chose it because he wanted to be able to type it from a non-smart phone and that left him with just two choices, * or #.
Those from the UK may have already known the symbol as a hash sign. This caught on worldwide. First as hash tag. Then simply hashtag.
Now there are hashtags for everything.
So there you have it. Wow your friends and colleagues with the tale of the octothorpe. Or don’t. I’m yet to have dinner party success with it.
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