017: Hashtag Octothorpe

Updated: Jan 8

The octothorpe. Sometimes it’s referred to as a number sign, sometimes the pound sign and sometimes the hash sign (popular in Britain as a short form of ‘hatchmark’). It’s also been called a grid, TicTacToe, pigpen and square. More recent nomenclature refers to it as a hashtag and if I were a betting woman, I would wager that if you show an octothorpe to 100 people under the age of 25, 99 out of 100 would refer to it as a hashtag.

The humble little octothorpe wears many hats; for example in the game of chess it signifies checkmate, it’s a stand-in for the musical sharp symbol, and in many programming languages it indicates that the rest of the line is comment only and not part of the code. Proofreaders use it to let an author know to insert a space, and it’s used in press releases, whereby three octothorpes in a row are used to signal the end of one.

The origin story that accompanies the octothorpe is much goofier than the formidable name ‘octothorpe’ itself. While all the other type superheroes and shady character origin stories err on the side of epic, the octothorpe’s origin story is the equivalent of someone’s uncle finding the symbol in a basement and saying ‘oh yeah, this’ll work’.

It’s a character with many names, many uses and a winding, cloudy history of how it became one of the worlds most used and recognizable characters, but where did it come from? In his book, Shady Characters, Keith Houston explores just this question… and it’s not as straightforward a story as you might expect. There are three main eras in the octothorpe‘s history dating back to Ancient Rome. So let’s start there.

The Roman term for pounds (as in weight) was libra pondo. Libra meaning ‘scale’ and pondo from the verb ‘pendere’ or ‘to weigh’. Each of these words libra and Pondo were synonymous terms for one pound in weight and that’s where the pound sign gets its oldest name as well as its balanced symbol: two vertical lines and two horizontal lines intersecting to create a balanced form.

This takes us to the second part of the octothorpe’s history. Fast forward to sometime in the late 14th century, the common abbreviation for pound (lb) was adopted and entered into the English language. Perhaps you may have figured it out already, but ‘lb’ is short for libra. Scribes often accessorized the ‘l’ and ‘b’ with a line or tilde (tiny squiggle) drawn above the letters’ x-height to denote the fact that it was a contraction. The marking of lb with a tilde was so common, in fact, the early printers created a single combined punch for the two letters. It then morphed into what we know today as a modern day octothorpe because of “carelessly rushing pens of successive scribes”. Chicken scratch handwriting for the win! So while the abbreviation lb lives on as a short form for pound today, the octothorpe, also called the pound sign, is the scrawled, amended version of lb. So the lb with a tilde is the missing evolutionary link from how as to how the octothorpe as we know it today, came to be.

As a fascinating aside, the British pound sign (a stylized capital L) is the octothorpe‘s sister. It quite simply refers to ‘libra’: a capitalized stylized L with a tilde through the middle of it. The tilde denotes the fact that it’s an abbreviation.

And now onto the third part of this symbol’s history. There’s a lot of controversy and confusion around the origins of the name octothorpe. As Houston notes in his book, big names in the literary world, such as the American Heritage Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary have presented ideas as to the octothorpe’s naming lineage. I won’t bore you with the details, but all is to say that none of them are adequately substantiated. Instead the octothorpe’s name comes from a much less likely place: Bell Labs. As in the 1950’s telephone giant. Bell Labs, which was the research arm of AT&T, won a total of seven Nobel prize in physics awarded for inventions that make it possible for telecommunications technology (including the Internet) possible today. Rotary phones - you know the ones where you stick your finger in a little hole that overlays the numbers zero through nine and pull in a circular motion until it goes click click click all the way back around,,, and then multiply that by seven times for the average telephone number or 10 digits in today’s world area codes… I grew up with a working rotary telephone in my basement let me tell you that calling into Kiss 92’s radio shows to try and win contests as a 12-year-old was made overly difficult using this archaic technology. Needless to say, the rotary telephone technology needed an upgrade: enter Touch-Tone telephones. The Touch-Tone telephone pad is what we all know and love today; a grid of three buttons across and four buttons down and the numbers one through nine in the first three rows with the number zero smack dab in the middle of the last row. But what to put on either side of the zero? It was the year 1968 when these two unused buttons were made available to control menus and other special services available through the phone. So the questions asked by Bell Labs were twofold: what symbols should occupy these buttons and what should these symbols be called?

Some of the first prototypes of the new keypad had a five pointed star on one side and a diamond on the other side but there was something wrong with that approach. Any ideas? Neither the five-pointed star, nor the diamond appeared on a standard typewriter keyboard so that was problematic in order to communicate anything about the touch tone phone using typewriter technology of the time. It was Doug Kerr, a Bell Labs engineer, who was working on this new project who came up with the new symbols that stuck: the asterisk and the octothorpe. They needed the symbols to be part of the ASCII character set (that would become adopted by computer manufacturers), as well as symbols that were present on current typewriters. In other words, the two symbols had to bridge old technology and new technology to stand the test of time. The symbols that we know and love today were selected but they needed a reboot as to their names. If you’re like me, you’ve called the asterisk an ‘asterix’ your whole life. The Bell Labs team agreed that it was tricky to pronounce and to spell, so they decided to rename it ‘star’.

Furthermore the pound sign was chosen, however it didn’t really have an agreed-upon name that could be used internationally. Kerr wanted to name the octothorpe a ‘diamond’, alluding to the centre shape of the symbol. But some of his colleagues were not convinced. And this is where the story gets confusing and confounded. Some of the individuals that author, Keith Houston, reached out to to write his book had different ideas of where the term octothorpe actually originated. There are three different origin stories that all seem a little far-fetched and unsubstantiated, including the fact that octothorpe is simply just a made up term; the fact that it has connections to the native American athlete Jim Thorpe who died in 1953 and was considered to be one of the greatest American athletes of all time; and the fact that ‘octo’ meant eight and ’thorpe’ meant village. It was actually originally referred to as an OCTATHERP. In new stories in the 1970s, the new telephone symbol and its new octothorpe name were publicized. And that’s the story. It just somehow came to be. Perhaps the term octothorpe and where and who it originated with at Bell Labs will likely be lost to history, but it’s amazing to think that an ancient symbol had it’s official naming party so recently (about 50 years ago). I guess it had to do with the fact that before then, the octothorpe didn’t have an internationally-recognized name. So such a huge telecommunications company coining a term for an ancient symbol that would be used on their technology all around the world is enough clout to make it official. And more recently, the octothorpe has made a huge resurgence.

Fast forward to 2007. Twitter was in its infancy and a basic tool compared to what it is now. Users were frustrated by the fact that they couldn’t organize their tweets and didn’t have the ability to specify what they wanted to see surrounding specific topics or events. My favourite part of the story is the fact that what we now know and love today as ‘hashtags’, quite literally transforming the globe, influencing election results and perpetuating global social movements, started outside of Twitter’s four walls. Chris Messina, who was a former Google and Uber lead, wrote a blog post suggesting that Twitter’s posts should be grouped into what he called “channels” that were denoted by an octothorpe and a keyword. So what’s a guy with a blog got to do to make his channel vision a reality? Well he just had to go knock on Twitter’s door. In an interview with Wired, Messina admitted that he really didn’t know anybody at Twitter’s headquarters but he decided to approach them on foot anyway. He walked up to Twitter’s co-founder (security please?!) Biz Stone (great name) and simply said “Hey, we’ve been talking about this problem with groups on Twitter. What do you think about using pound symbols to tag posts?” As Stone recalls, he asked Messina “OK, but what do you want me to do about that? Go ahead and do it.”

Messina began using them with his friends with some success, but it wasn’t until 2009 that Twitter officially embraced hashtags, creating a search tool so that users could see who else was using a specific hashtag. Stowe Boyd, a former research head at Gigaom, explains that the term ‘hashtag’ originated from programmer culture, referring the a hash in code - programmer’s terminology for the octothorpe. (What a different world it would be if we referred to them not as hashtags, but as poundtags or numbertags or even the originally proposed ‘channels’.) Hashtags deepened the network of connections between users as well as how users interacted with content, and it could lead a user to make new discoveries - new people and new content. But they weren’t created without some backlash. Messina’s said, “In the beginning people really hated them! People didn’t understand why we needed hashtags, and the biggest complaint was that people just didn’t like how they looked.” Ahhhhh… this sounds familiar. To rewind more than 500 years ago, Mr. Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany wasn’t met with all smiles and handshakes at the talk of his new business venture. The advent of the printing press, arguably the single greatest technological advancement of the last millennium, if not ever, was met with criticism. The fact that Gutenberg’s Blackletter type was designed to mimic the handwriting of scribes, probably didn’t help. (Cheap knockoff, anyone?! Nobody wants to buy a genuine ‘Frauda’ purse).

After Twitter’s 2009 realization that “hey, maybe these users are onto something”, Instagram adopted hashtags in 2010 to label content. Just-in-time information on any topic imaginable was now at the fingertips of users across multiple platforms. GQ magazine even named the octothorpe the symbol of the year 2010. Messina says that the number one question he gets asked is whether or not he worked for Twitter. He didn’t. He contributed to Twitter’s offering, however he maintains that “…the hashtag was not created for Twitter. The hashtag was created for the internet.” So while Google’s goal is to catalogue the world’s information, perhaps it’s the role of the hashtag to catalogue the world’s real-time information.

So the next time you Tweet, pay homage to the symbol that gets a new identify with each upheaval in communications technology: writing in Ancient Rome, printing in medieval Europe, Touch-Tone telephones in the 1960s and the Internet in the 21st Century. #libra #lb #pound #octothorpe

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Boat Origami Photo by Alex on Unsplash

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