By: Mel Quist
Take a look at the upper row of symbols on your keyboard and you’ll probably be able to name each one. Exclamation point, dollar sign, asterisk, and parentheses are all symbols we use from time to time without much thought. But when you came to the “#” symbol you probably experienced a moment of brief trepidation. What is this called?
The reason I bring this up is because I’ve noticed a lot of debate recently on the preferred name for this elusive symbol. Whether you call it the number sign, hashtag, pound symbol, or something else, I thought it would be interesting to look into the different titles, their meanings, and try to settle this debate once and for all.
The origins of this symbol came from the abbreviation for pound, lb, or libra pondo, which means “pound by weight” in Latin. When printed, this symbol was often written with a horizontal line across the top so the letter “l” would not be mistaken for the number “1”. With time, the symbol was simplified to two horizontal strokes “=” over two slash-like strokes “//.”
Number is probably the most common name for this symbol in the United States. It’s used in math and is how we say the name of the popular #2 pencil. This alternative to pound was popularized to avoid confusion with the British currency of the same name; but its origins as number are said to date back to at least the 1800s when it was used as a bookkeeping symbol.
Hash has been used to describe the “#” symbol in various ways since its inception, but it did not grow to widespread popularity until this decade. With social media becoming a preferred platform for communication, the hashtag (a keyword or phrase preceded by the hash symbol) became an internet phenomenon. Today hashtags are used on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram as a way to search for topics, view trending content, and boost engagement. With its ascent into the cultural lexicon, it is now used in many contexts (many ironically) outside of social media.
The word octothorpe originated in the 1960s when Bell Telephone Laboratories workers were looking for a word for the “#” symbol on the telephone keypad. Although the official origins of this name are disputed, the 1991 Merriam-Webster New Book of Word Histories says the original word was spelled “octotherp” and arose as a joke among telephone workers. Others claim it was taken from the Old Norse word thorpe, which meant farm or field. Thus, octothorpe would mean “eight fields.”
Although not commonly used by everyday Americans, musicians will recognize this as the “sharp” symbol—the glyph used in music notation. Microsoft also recognizes this symbol as sharp in the programming languages C#, J#, and F#, even noting in their frequently asked questions section that it is pronounced as sharp, rather than hash or pound.
Unlike the exclamation point and the dollar sign, there are so many meanings and uses for the “#” symbol, we may never have a uniform name for this intriguing figure. However, I think this information offers a lot of valuable insight on a subject that has perplexed so many. Next time you have a need to use this symbol, you should be better equipped to understand the appropriate name and its uses.
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