There has been a growing hue and cry demanding the demise of the hashtag (#). Surely, if Jay-Z thinks it is crucial enough to include a hashtag death wish in his latest music a release, then this must be of monumental importance.
Poor abused symbol, # certainly is ubiquitous seen everywhere in social media, television, advertising and even in daily verbal conversations. Where once people used airquotes to highlight sarcasm or other notions, nowadays some people are actually saying “hashtag” ( as in ” this weather hashtag sucks”). I am not sure whether this phenomenon is an upgrade, or more likely an erosion in communication skills – it certainly ranks as poorly as saying, “LOL” or “OMG” or “BFF.”
Overuse of the hashtag has recently been backfiring on advertisers who mistakenly hoped to get free publicity and “street cred” by leveraging social media. Companies such as McDonald’s (#McD Stories) and Holiday Inn (#Stay Smart) received viral stories about throwing up after eating McRibs and X-rated Inn shenanigans not to be repeated here. Since the advertising industry has been my labor of love for most of my professional career, I find this embarrassing.
How did this happen? How did this innocuous crossbar become so ignominious? And, more importantly, where did # come from and how did it evolve/devolve into its present situation?
Let’s journey back to the ancient Romans – the moniker used at that time for a pound of weight was libra pondo (libra= scale or balance, pondo= weigh, from the verb pondere). Interestingly, both libra and pondo were also used individually to mean “a pound.” Wait – it gets more confusing.
Late in the 14th Century we start to se the abbreviation lb (libra) and scribes often wrote it with a line drawn across the letters, and here we see the beginnings of the hashtag we know:
While the transformation was taking place pondo was also undergoing alteration. The latin pondo became pond in Old English and finally pound in the Modern English we use today. The two Latin words merged once again and # “the pound sign” was whelped.
Ah, but our innocent little symbol has since become quite promiscuous, being used again and again in a myriad of meanings:
# number sign
# checkmate in chess
# musical sharp (a little tipsy here, on an angle)
# proofreader symbol denoting insertion of space
# pound sign on a Touch-Tone Phone
# hyperlink to find groups or topics
Now to the Octothorpe entitlement. Researching, I found at least 3 theories and I imagine there are more:
1) Etymology version: octo = Latin for 8, Thorpe = Old Norse for a village surrounded by 8 fields (again a bit of redundancy here)
2) Romanticized version: The 18th Century philanthropist James Edward Oglethorpe secured a charter in the colony then known as Georgia as a place of refuge for debtors
3) Nerd/Geek version: Bell Labs was the innovator of the Touch-Tone Phone in the early 1960’s. According to a memo written by a Bell Labs employee, an engineer by the name of Don McPherson created the Octothorpe name to refer to the # by combining the 8 points octo and the last name of the athlete Jim Thorpe. Supposedly McPherson was part of a group petitioning for the return of Thorpe’s 1912 Olympic medals from Sweden as the medals had been withdrawn due to a disqualification because Thorpe had accepted money for playing baseball 3 years prior (the medals were reinstated, but not until 1983).
Which do you think is most likely?
I am interested in your opinions!
And so, the saga of the #’s prolific and storied past has reached its conclusion.
# The End
(apologies to -30-)