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#ThePoundSign

A few weeks ago, my classmates began to use hashtags on WhatsApp. They served no purpose, because WhatsApp has no support for hashtags as of now, but they made me wonder about the origin of the hashtag. Why did it suddenly strike us that we should use a pound sign on social media? When did it originate? Why is there a hashtag symbol on our telephone dial pads? In my never-ending quest for knowledge (wink wink), I began to Google the hashtag and its origins.

Surprisingly enough, the pound only took off in a big way in 1960 or so. Bell Labs and AT&T began to put it on their new touch-tone dialing systems to be used in those annoying automated telephone response things that all those customer helplines have (if I wanted a recorded voice repeating a sentence over and over, I'd have used Siri, not called customer service!). Back then, the pound symbol wasn't nearly as well known as it is today. All of a sudden, everyone who wanted the above annoying voice in their ear had to know what a hashtag symbol was. Originally, it was christened the "octathorpe" by some obscure Bell Labs employee whose identity no one seems to remember. Even then, however, it had more pseudonyms than your average NSA agent, including the "pound sign", the "number sign" and the "hash" (I suppose they did make a hash of naming it).

The name "pound sign", incidentally, probably arose because some chap in America (the British, showing uncharacteristic sensibility, never used "#" to mean "lb") somewhere felt that writing "lb" for "pound" was far too normal. Instead, he chose to write it as "#" and for some reason the name stuck. Its use to represent the word "number" (for all those people who are too lazy to type "No.") probably originates from the Teletype Corporation, supposedly the first people to use "#" to mean "number". The rest of the world calls "#" a "hash" - probably a corruption of the word "hatch".

The hash symbol, it turns out, is a rather versatile symbol. It is used, as mentioned above, to represent a pound (As in a 5# bag) or to represent "number" (as in the case of "a #2 pencil"). It is also used by proof-readers to represent places where a space must be inserted (as in two#words being#written together#like this). A very similar sign is also used to represent a sharp chord in music. In some programming languages, like Python, it is used to represent a line of code which will not be run but gives information about the program (a comment to the more programingally [is that a word?] savvy of  you).

As it happens, twitter was the first social networking site to implement the hashtag. The first hashtag ever was in the following tweet from Chris Messina in August 2007:

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

Hashtags have come a long way since then.

I would have liked to end by asking you to make a donation to the Organization of Hashtag Related Things, but unfortunately, there is no such organization. So, for want of a better ending, I'll just leave it at this.


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