JUST THIS LAST week, one of my professors spoke about using the pound sign as we watched him type on the projector screen. “Wait what” came an incredulous voice from the back of the room. “You know, the pound sign…” He squinted, then ventured again. “The number sign?” Silence. “Oh the hashtag you mean!” came the voice again from the back of the room. A collective “ohhhh” swept through the room.
For the first time in a long time, I empathized with the professor’s slightly curmudgeon-y pangs. For digital natives (that’s you millennials), the # has unquestionably come to be called a hashtag. But with all respect and sincerity, where the heck did that word even come from… and what the heck does it even mean? I mean think about it. Really think about it. Why is that symbol called a hashtag?
Leave it to the trusty Oxford English Dictionary to come flying in and save the linguistic day. With dictionary pages scattering in the breeze behind it, the prestigious dictionary often crushes slang words under its mighty and uncompromising weight (GTFO selfie you have no place here). But in an underdog style maybe second only to Slumdog Millionaire, “hashtag” has proved too popular with the peeps and thus managed to get itself added to the OED in the June 2014 additions. And like any good underdog protagonist, this word has had a rather humble background that’s definitely worth checking out.
Though called a number sign (due to the totally primo programmers of the 70s) and a pound sign (due to Latin scribes crossing the top of the weight abbreviation “lb” like so) in North America, the true inklings of hashtag began across the pond. The symbol # is called a “hash” in the UK, and according to the ole OED, this probably came from the verb hatch (to cut, engrave, or draw a series of generally parallel lines for shading in drawing), altered by association with the verb hash (to cut meat into small pieces for cooking). Super exciting, eh?
The tag half of the word (and thus the revolution and remaking of the “hash” symbol) comes in much more recently. On August 23, 2007, Chris Messina proposed a system to be used on Twitter to tag topics of interest into groups. He actually posted the first symbol version of the hashtag as we know and love it today:
It wasn’t yet three days later when the spelled-out word “hash tag” appeared in a blog. And beginning July 2, 2009, when Twitter began to hyperlink all tweeted hashtags to Twitter search results for the hashtagged word, the hashtag has become not only the tweet-tracker virtual staple, but also a staple of all millennial dialogue. It’s everywhere. I mean if it’s so ubiquitous that the OED has included it, then you can bet your bottom dollar that your “cool tech mom” has stumbled upon it too (MOM no… that necklace is 100% #cringeworthy). Also, people have come to use hashtags even when they don’t serve their original linking purpose (like in the totally meta title of this post).
Even more interesting, and perhaps more risky, is when the word “hashtag” makes its way into verbal conversation. How many times have you heard someone playfully say something like “Hashtag truth,” in response to your oh-so-wry quip? Too many? Not many? When used sparingly (and I mean like once a month) saying “hashtag” as a signifier for the symbol can be funny. But saying it too much won’t make you as funny as Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake were in their “#Hashtag” sketch last September, because then you’ll just sound like a giggling high schooler. I can’t say that I’ve seen the hashtag finger symbol catch on either since the episode aired the same way that air quoting has persisted in verbal conversation.
Nevertheless, be glad that you now know what the hashtag means (TIL amiright?)—the upsurge and reinvention of the use of the symbol means that the concomitant new word for the symbol isn’t going away any time soon, especially in dialogue about social movements, humorous trends, or political jabs sparked by certain popular hashtags. So hashtag on. And in the meantime, watch the sketch again, because you know you can’t resist.