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wolfewithane / Why's It Called a Hashtag?

Recently some non-alphanumeric characters have fallen into usage that don't have commonly accepted names. Twitter hashtags have made what's becoming known as the hash mark popular. But it seems the symbol's name has always been elusive.

The symbol crept into English usage and no one's exactly sure why. The original name was the pound sign. As early as mid 1700's it was used in the US to represent a pound of weight. Before that, nothing is clear. One theory is that the original name was a hatch and represented an area to be cross-hatched or shaded on a map or engraving plate. But this seems to be revisionist history. The original typewriter keyboard was patented in 1878 and didn't include a #. The character showed up on modern Underwood and Smith keyboards in the early 1900's, but still wasn't a standard characters for all manufacturers.

The real popularity of the sign came about in either 1961 or 1964 when Bell labs were working on the touchtone phone. Two characters were added to the pad to fill it out and add function. The asterisk and pound sign were chosen. Asterisk already had an accepted name, but pound was open for interpretation. And engineers at Bell Labs have confused things even more with varying stories of the name they gave the symbol: octatherp or octathorpe. The stories involve such characters as Lauren Asplund, Don McPherson, Doug Kerr, Howard Eby, Ralph Carlsen, C. Schaak and Herbert T. Uthlaut. And I'm not even sure how many of these names are real. The tales on how the symbol got a new name:

One story is it's an old Latin/Norse mapmaking character and term to depict a town surrounded by eight farm fields. Octa is Latin for eight and thorpe is Norse for town.
Another story is that it was a joke term engineers invented. Supposedly they wanted to call the six-pointed asterisk a sextile.

Another was that it was a protest. Jim Thorpe was considered America's greatest cross-sport athlete and was stripped of his medals from the 1912 Olympics after it was revealed that he played baseball for money. The octathorpe was named in his honor. Eventually Thorpe's medals were reinstated.

Personally I think they're all pulling our leg.

Whatever, the term didn't catch on and the key was still called pound. Though used on press releases, teletype copy, on cell phones and by programmers, regular english usage started by early Twitter adopter Chris Messina in 2007. He proposed # before a word as an easy way to group tweets. It was and we're starting to see # pop into popular usage elsewhere. For instance, it's an easy way to tag your own typed notes for easy searching later. We're also seeing it used by other social networks and blogs.

Again, a mystery. It's likely that it's typesetting slang like the word bang to refer to an exclamation point. It's also possible that programmers coined the term hash to refer to the symbol's jumble of lines. The word hash was commonly used for the symbol in Britain before adopted in the US.

I talked to Chris Messina and asked him about the origin. He proposed the name "channel tags." He was kind enough to do a search and found a 2007 message where Stowe Boyd called them hashtags. Stowe was kind enough to track it down to August 25, 2007, where he first used the word hash to refer to the # character. Stowe just used the word hash to refer to that mark. Mystery solved.

But wait. Stowe believe that similar tags may have been unofficially used on Jaiku earlier. My vote is that we officially call # a hash from now on and leave it at that. My thanks to Chris and Stowe for their time.

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NOTES: The excellent meta-language site Shady Characters has a nice octathorpe piece. Illustration drawn with Adobe Ideas on iPad and processed in Text Art 2 for Mac. Check out Stowe's book: The Way of Knowledge: Managing the Unmanagable

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