Sign of the Times

Random thoughts on punctuation and other typography

 
 
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Jim Thorpe, hashtag daddy (image: bit.ly/1iptbss)

Before twitter formally adopted the hash symbol in July 2009, this typological obscurity was the subject of much mystery. Unlike every other punctuation mark on your keyboard, the hash serves no clear role. Even its name changed depending on where you were in the world – North Americans once knew it as the pound sign, whereas people in the UK called it the hash (from a corruption of ‘hatch’, referring to the cross-hatch appearance of the mark), probably to distinguish it from the symbol for British currency. Common ground was found with the colloquial use of ‘number sign’, i.e. ‘question #11’ or ‘#8 spanner’.

 

Truly Fascinating History

The name ‘pound sign’ has its origins in 14th century Latin with an abbreviation of ‘lb’ to represent the Roman libra (‘scales’) pondo (‘weight’) or ‘pound weight.’ Libra pondo was eventually shortened to ‘libra’, from which ‘lb’ became the contraction. It was common for busy scribes of the era to join these characters together with a horizontal bar (known as a tilde) to denote the contraction, which led to the mark ‘℔’. This eventually evolved into the modern form of the symbol: ‘#’.

Other names for the symbol include the hex, tictactoe, flash, pig-pen, (garden) gate, sharp, crunch, punch and the more recent hashtag (thanks again to twitter). My personal favourite is the octothorpe. The octothorpe (originally ‘octotherp’) was supposedly coined by Don Macpherson, a U.S. telephone engineer at Bell Labs (owned by AT&T) in the 1960s. While designing the touch-tone push-button keypad, Macpherson and his team used the hash symbol to denote a key for sending data to a telephone operating system. Unaware of any naming convention, the engineers decided among themselves to come up with a jokey moniker for the sign. ‘Octo-‘ was a given because the symbol had eight short legs. ‘Thorpe’ referred to the American footballer and Olympic athlete James Francis ‘Jim’ Thorpe (1888–1953, pictured above), who’s achievements Macpherson admired. The team appreciated this made-up word, believing it sounded suitably Greek to give it credibility, and decided to name the symbol accordingly.

 

Making a Hash of It

The shadowy origins of the name aside, sometimes even the use of the # symbol is the subject of confusion. Lazy typographers (and musicians) occasionally use it erroneously to denote a sharp note: C#, D#, F#, etc. This is incorrect as traditionally the horizontal lines of the symbol need to be slightly oblique to differentiate it from the five horizontal lines of the stave. Thus the correct musical notation of sharp notes is ♯ – subtly different to the parallel lines of the #.

Editors (at first usually American editors) use the symbol as a proofing mark to show where a space was needed, either between characters, words or lines. This differed to the British-English mark for ‘insert space’ but today the hash symbol is universally recognised as ‘space needed’ by proof-readers and typesetters.

 

Modern Day

Since 2009 the hash symbol has been reborn as the hashtag by twitter (and indeed Gawker, Google+, Instagram, Tumblr et al) using it to corral (‘tag’) subject matter across microblogging sites. For the itwiterate, the hashtag is a way of grouping content that people can search for. Thus someone could tweet ‘this hashtag blog is so exciting!!!’ and their post would disappear into the ether. By modifying the tweet with a hashtag – ‘this week’s #hashtagblog is so exciting!!!’ – other users could search for exciting hashtag-related tweets and post their own appreciative comments (probably).

The resuscitated hashtag has even spawned its own musical style: hashtag rap, whereby the ‘like’ or ‘as’ is taken out of a rapped metaphor or similie and replaced with a pause. An example is from Drake’s contribution to Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Eminem’s 2009 hit Forever: ‘Swimming in the money, come and find me – #Nemo/If I was at the club, you know I balled – #Chemo’. I’m not entirely sure what that means. But with this being rap, a hip hop ‘beef’ inevitably followed about who invented the style. Whatever the origins, the wordplay associated with it supposedly derives from how people post their character-restricted thoughts on twitter. Today’s hashtag rap fans could do worse than use the symbol to speed-dial their dope dealers…

 

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Lil Wayne, hashtag rapper: more lucrative than editorial 
freelancing (image: http://bit.ly/1srOXjS)
 

In March 2013, twitter celebrated its sixth birthday and reported that over 300 billion tweets had been sent over its then seven-year history, equating to around 400 million tweets every day. That’s a huge number of hashtags. From its obscure roots in 14th century Latin it would seem that the hash has become the most widespread symbol featured on the internet. Not bad considering that before the launch of twitter few people could agree on the symbol’s name, its proper use – or indeed what combination of key strokes are needed to make one (it’s alt+3 on a Mac, and just above the right shift key if you’re using a PC).



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