Every Friday in our virtual office (Slack), Paul, one of our developers, likes to share a new word with us. A few weeks ago, his Friday word was octothorpe which, ultimately, is another word for this symbol #. Paul informed us that “one of the potential etymologies of the word is ‘In cartography, [the octothorp] is a traditional symbol for village: eight fields around a central square. That is the source of its name. Octothorp means eight fields. (From octo- (“eight”) and thorpe (“field, hamlet or small village”).’ Happy with my new word and thoroughly enjoying the etymology of it, I decided to tweet about it. Beware he who tweets from hearsay with no citation as @octothorpean came straight back at me with:
@AwesomeWallhq — octothorpean (@octothorpean) August 6, 2015
So began my hunt for the origin and etymology of the symbol known as hash, hashtag, hash key, pound sign, number sign, octothorp, octothorpe or whatever else you might like to call it. Here are some of my findings though I have to admit a slight failing as I can find no firm evidence of the ‘official’ name or of the origin of the word octothorpe or how the symbol # actually came about but these are my favourite or the most renowned theories...
My first instinct was to google ‘octothorpe’ only to be presented with a range of conflicting theories from varying degrees of authentic and reliable sites to random individual’s musings. I discovered that Paul had got his information from wiktionary but I was wary of this since everyone knows that sites like Wikipedia can be edited by anybody and should at least be cross referenced. Reluctant to leave behind the term octothorpe and my now romanticised concept of its ye olde English village origins, I turned to my trusty bible - The Oxford English Dictionary. Imagine my jubilation when OED confirmed Paul’s original Friday fun fact and my whimsical attachment to the eight fields around a village etymology.
Seemingly my beloved and trusty OED also hadn’t found a precise origin of the term so my search continued. I looked into the other explanations of the etymology of the word and found myself reading about Bell Laboratories and a man called Don Macpherson.
In a memo from Ralph Carlson (a Bell employee), it states that during some training on Bell’s touch tone phone, Don needed to come up with a name for the # symbol. His thought process was that there are eight points on the symbol so ‘OCTO’ (nobody is denying the ancient Greek and Latin origin of ‘eight') and he needed a few more letters to create a realistic word. ‘Thorpe’ is alluded to have originated because Don, at the time, was actively involved in trying to get Jim Thorpe’s Olympic medals back. As a side, talk about shaving a yak, I then had to look up who Jim Thorpe was - follow the link if you’re interested! So Don Macpherson added the name ‘Thorpe’ to ‘octo’ and Bob’s your uncle, Fanny’s your aunt, there’s an explanation for the etymology of the octothorpe.
After discovering a couple of possible explanations for the etymology of the term ‘octothorpe’ I then found out a bit about the possible origin of the sign and other terms for it.
The sign is often described as a pound sign and there are two thought processes behind it. The more boring version is that in the days of teletypes/teleprinters/telex machines the £ on an English keyboard was in the same place as # on an American keyboard so that both were known as the pound sign.
The origin of the # sign being called a pound sign dates back to monks and scripture and, oddly, Sir Isaac Newton. It begins with the introduction of the Latin abbreviation ‘lb’ for the term libra pondo or ‘pound weight’. “Ancient scribes often used abbreviations to save space and time while copying ancient documents. Quite often these abbreviations were marked with a horizontal line above the abbreviated term (sometimes referred to as an overbar or an overline)” so the abbreviation for pound begin to look like today’s hashtag (the image on the left is Isaac Newton's handwritten scrawl of the shorthand lb):
And finally, the use of the hashtag as we know it today originated from a guy called Chris Messina, when, on August 23, 2007 he tweeted:
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?— ☞ Chris Messina ☜ (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
His idea had come from the chat system IRC where they were used in much the same way as they are today: to categorise items into groups. His main reason, he says in his blog, for initiating the hashtag was to have a “better eavesdropping experience on Twitter.”
Amusingly, Messina told the Wall Street Journal that “[Twitter] told me flat out, ‘These things are for nerds. They’re never going to catch on,’”
Yet here we are hashtagging away on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook and for a few of you who got a bit over excited, you’re hashtagging your lives in speech.. stop doing that!
Finally, for those of you wondering how the name 'hashtag' came about, I found this on the Guardian site: