Out with the old and in with the new - a phrase that has sculpted the world we live in. But it’s time to start defining what is ‘new’ and what is ‘old’. What if we told that you Twitter repurposed the hashtag symbol? That this ‘old’ symbol was actually transformed, not from a redesign, but from repurposed thinking?
The # symbol has gone through a variety of names and purposes since it first appeared on a Remington Standard Typewriter in 1886. Over the last 130 or so years, the hashtag symbol has gone by a variety of names, each with a different purpose.
The Pound Key - When calling someone by telephone or typing on a keyboard, the # is referred to as the ‘pound key’, but why is it? One theory is because typewriters made in the UK had the monetary symbol for pound sharing the same key as the number 3. If you look down at your keyboard, you’ll see that the 3 shares a place with the #. In the 1930’s, Americans began using the phrase ‘pound sign’ to refer to the #, while the rest of the world continued to refer to the pound currency(£) and weight symbol(lb) as the true ‘pound sign’.
The Number Sign - A manual from 1917 first distinguished the two uses of the # sign: If the # was placed before a figure it symbolized a number. If the # was put after the figure, it referenced pounds.
The Octothorp - The term octothorp (or octothorpe) was first documented in a 1973 patent for the company Bell Labs. It was rumored that the engineering company used the word throughout the 1960’s when Bell Labs first began working on the communication between telephones and computers. There is no lie that this name, octothorp, is very unique. It is believed that the “octo-” refers to the 8 edges sticking out, while the “thorpe” is believed to reference an athlete from the early 20th century, but its exact significance remains a mystery.
The Hashtag- While the newest name for the # is ‘hashtag’, it can only be referred to as a ‘hashtag’ if it’s used in the correct formatting. So when do we call it a ‘hashtag’? When there is an unspaced combination of one or more words that you are trying to tag on digital media (i.e. #ThisIsAHashtag). While Twitter was the first to start using the ‘hashtag’ to search for keywords, Facebook and Instagram quickly followed suit. Now the # can be used across a variety of platforms to help people search for specific topics.
The hashtag symbol may be one of the busiest symbols in history. Depending on what part of the world you are from, the # has a different meaning. Starting in 1989, the British Post Office and British Telecom stopped referring to the symbol as a ‘hash’, and gave it the new name, ‘square’. If you continue east, the citizens of Malaysia refer to the # symbol as a ‘hex’. In Japan, they refer to the # as a ‘sharp’, and it’s easy to understand why. The # symbol looks very similar to the musical symbol, sharp (♯).
Remember how Malaysians refer to the # as a ‘hex’? While for many this seems like a random term, those in the design world know that a ‘hex color’ is a 6 interval combination of letters and numbers that make up a distinct color. And a # is put at the beginning of this combination (#000000 is the color code for black). The hashtag isn’t used for just colors, but also different commands in coding programs. When coupled with the ! symbol, it is know as a ‘shebang’,written out as ‘#!’. It is also called a ‘hashbang’ and is a symbol used in the UNIX operating system, which is the basis of Linux, Android and others. You’ve also probably seen the notation ‘###’ in press releases, denoting the end and that there is no more copy to come.
The # is primed for the digital era, and with it, a legacy of hashtags. Some of the most popular #hashtags from the 2016 calendar year were: #Rio2016, #Election2016, #PokemonGo, #Euro2016, #Oscars, #Brexit and #GameofThrones.