Hashing Out the History of the Hashtag

The Hashtag - Now Indispensable to Twitter Users

The Hashtag – Now Indispensable to Twitter Users

When you were memorizing your facts back in grade school, did you ever wonder why “lb.” is the abbreviation for “pound?” Makes no sense at all, does it?

And nowadays, do you puzzle over why the robocall operator wants you to hit the “#” symbol on your keypad when she says “press pound?” That doesn’t make much sense either. Are you supposed to bang hard on that little key?

Well, they do make sense after all. Nothing happens without a reason. Here’s the rest of the story.

According to the book Shady Characters by typographical historian Keith Houston, the”#” sign evolved in England during the Middle Ages. Scribes and scrivener-accountants needed an abbreviation for “libra pondo,” which means “a pound by weight.”

They would write “lb” on their documents, and to signify that the term was a contraction, they would append a tilde: ~. Over time, hastily-working record-keepers corrupted “lb~” to “#.”

That’s how the “#” came to be known as the pound sign, but the versatile little symbol has had many other uses as well. Its most recent duty has been as the Twitter hashtag, but it has also meant “number” and “checkmate.”

The symbol’s official name is the “octothorpe.” According to one believable story, it was also used by medieval British cartographers. “Octo” is the Latin prefix for “eight,” while “thorpe” is an old Norse word meaning “field” or “farm.” Thus, if you saw a “#” on one of their maps, you’d know that it was a village surrounded by eight fields.

Roger Maris: 61 Home Runs in 1961

Roger Maris: 61 Home Runs in 1961

And while we’re at it, it’s World Series time, so here’s another. Do you, like me, think that Roger Maris’s brilliant achievement of 61 home runs in 1961 should not by sullied by an asterisk? If so, we can draw a bit of consolation whenever that little “*” shows up. That’s because the asterisk comes from the cuneiform symbol meaning “heaven.”

Roger was a good, clean-living guy. He belted all those homers in an era long before the damnable performance-enhancing drugs arrived. If anybody deserves a place among the baseball deities, it’s Roger Maris. He was a star among stars. Just like you see in the heavens above.

One Response to “Hashing Out the History of the Hashtag”

  1. Joanne Kuzborski Says:

    Love, love, love this site! Thanks Tom!

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