The Strange Roots

Hashtag

Hashtag, a word or phrase preceded by a hash (#) for identifying social media posts about the same subject, entered tech vernacular in the early 2000s.

Tech product designer Chris Messina is credited with being the inventor of the “hashtag”, proposing on Twitter that a hash (#) or “pound sign” could be used for groups in August 2007:

how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?

— messina.eth (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007

Two days later Messina would write a blog post, referring to these proposed groups as “tag channels” or “channel tags”, while also noting “To join a channel, simply add a tag hash (#)”. The next day, information technologist Stowe Boyd, posted a follow-up blog post entitled “Hash tags = Twitter groupings”, writing:

”My sense is that tags in Twitter, as elsewhere, define shared experience of some kind, involving all those using the tag. And the use can be either actively putting a hash tag (like “#hashtag”) into a tweet, or more passively opting to follow a stream of tweets related to a tagged theme.”

The hash symbol would go on to become ubiquitous on Twitter and spread to other social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Despite its emergence in modern communication, it has a much longer and more complicated history.

The hash symbol stems from Roman times when the mark for libra pondo (“pound in weight”) was lb, short for libra, and British adopters of the convention put a line across the top to indicate it was a contraction (lb). It’s not entirely clear exactly when it happened but over time, as the symbol was written down more and more quickly, the lb symbol would eventually morphed into a #. This is why the symbol is also known as a “pound sign”. In the 19th century, bookkeeper’s would also use the symbol to denote numbers, e.g. #1 = number one, a convention that has continued to this day, hence why the symbol is also called the “number sign”.

The symbol’s other official technical name is an octothorpe, another contribution to tech etymology by the folks over at Bell Labs (see also Cookie, Grep and Unix). Researchers were developing a new telephone keyboard and wanted buttons that would allow new functions so settled on adding # and * next to zero. They couldn’t call it a ‘pound sign’ because it could be confused with the symbol for British currency, so decided to call it the octothorpe - ‘octo-’ due to it having eight points and ‘-thorpe’, a suggestion by employee Don Macpherson who was part of a group trying to have American Olympian Jim Thorpe's medals reinstated (his two gold medals were stripped from him because it was discovered he had played professional baseball which violated the games’ amateurism rules)

It started to be referred to as a hash from the 1960s, although it has nothing to do with the “hashish” or “hash” that was being smoked at the time (from the Arabic ‘ḥašīš’ meaning “hay, dried herb”). The Oxford English Dictionary believes hash’s etymology is a clipping of ‘hash mark’, the stripe or stripes displayed on the sleeve of a military uniform, which in turn was a compound of ‘hatch’ (to overlay something with narrow strips) and ‘mark’. Hatch is believed to come from the Anglo-Norman and Middle French ‘hacher’ meaning “to chop” (also to cut or engrave lines with a chisel) from Frankish *hakkōn and the Proto-Germanic *hakkōną (“to chop or hack”).

The origin of the “tag”, meaning “to furnish or mark with”, is slightly more obscure. The noun from of ‘tag’ meant "a hanging ragged or torn piece (of cloth)[...] hanging from a garment” from the early 1400s. It was synonymous with “dag” or “clag”, which referred to a matted lock or clump of wool hanging from the backside of a sheep! Tag may also have been influenced by the word “tack” meaning ‘that which fastens or attaches’.

Root: The word hashtag is a compounding of ‘hash’ (from Proto-Germanic ‘*hakkōną’ (“to chop or hack”) and the word ‘tag’ (from tagge, “a small piece hanging from a garment”).

Sources: Chris Messina’s tweet | Chris Messina’s blog | OED Online