Answer Man: Why is the pound sign now called a hashtag?

News-DemocratApril 29, 2014 

I was classically trained to type on a manual typewriter in a high school business class decades ago. It bugs me that the symbol known as the pound sign (#) for, what, centuries? is now referred as "hashtag" in the Twitter age. Why not just say "pound"? Isn't a hashtag something you'd use to label your container of hash? Aaargh! It drives me nuts. -- J.B., of Millstadt

You should be glad they didn't decide on "octothorpetag."

That's what it might have been called 50 years ago when Ma Bell introduced the touch-tone telephone. For those old enough to remember, rotary-dial phones had only the 10 digits, but those new-fangled push-button jobs added the star/asterisk -- and that funny symbol with the two vertical lines crossing the two horizontal lines on a slant.

Bell engineers officially called it an octothorpe -- "octo" for the lines' eight end points and "thorpe" to honor Georgia founder James Edward Oglethorpe or Olympian Jim Thorpe, depending which story you want to believe. Fortunately, the name never caught on.

Instead, we continued to call it the "number sign" or, as you noted, the "pound sign." According to some historians, the Teletype Corp. was the first to use # as a symbol for number in the early 1900s. Hence, we began buying #2 pencils. Later, companies began typing # for lb. so people wouldn't confuse the lowercase l for the number 1. Voila -- the pound sign.

But on March 21, 2006, the symbol began its latest evolution, according to -- what else? -- www.hashtags.org. That's the day Twitter co-founder and St. Louis native Jack Dorsey sent his very first "tweet" by posting "just setting up my twttr" as he and colleagues looked for the easiest way to send text messages on their cell phones.

"We came across the word 'twitter,' and it was just perfect," Dorsey said later. "The definition was 'a short burst of inconsequential information,' and that's exactly what the product was."

At first, of course, there was no need for classifying these tweets on this new social networking site that only few knew about. But within just a few months, its popularity exploded with tens and then hundreds of thousands of messages being posted each day.

So, to organize these posts into some sort of logical groupings, Chris Messina posted on Aug. 23, 2007, "how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?"

So far, so good. Messina was still calling it a pound sign. But that apparently changed forever just three days later when Stowe Boyd used the term "hash tag" in a blog post he called "Hash Tags (equals) Twitter Groupings," according to lexicographer Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society's New Words Committee.

You may hold onto tradition like Tevye, but the pound sign is sometimes called a hash mark for the way the lines slash across each other. And it is designating a subject that's being "hashed out" on the Internet. "Tag" is simply the name of the subject -- like an old-fashioned name tag. So the term "hashtag" is logical.

In any case, the rest is #history. In 2012 the dialect society named it word of the year, beating out "marriage equality" in a runoff as well as YOLO (you only live once), fiscal cliff, Gangnam style, and 47 percent (the portion of the population that does not pay federal income tax). Now after just seven years, 100 million active daily Twitter users send out an estimated 500 million messages every day.

Will "Cedar Cove" return to the Hallmark channel in the near future? -- D.C., of Swansea

Stock up on the popcorn and prepare to enjoy the continuing saga of Andie MacDowell as Judge Olivia Lockhart when "Cedar Cove" returns at 7 p.m. July 20.

Last year, the Hallmark Channel's first scripted show won its Saturday night cable TV time slot along with generally favorable reviews from critics.

"Cedar Cove evokes certain splendid shows of another time and place, including the late-great 'Family' and the longtime Irish hit 'Ballykissangel,'" Mary McNamara wrote in the L.A. Times.

So, it was a no-brainer for Hallmark to order that production of new episodes of Debbie Macomber's book series resume last month in Vancouver. Follow the show and find coming previews at www.hallmarkchannel/cedarcove.

Today's trivia

Can you name at least three families in which grandfather, father and two sons played Major League Baseball (not all at the same time, of course)?

Answer to Tuesday's trivia: I suppose everyone still wants to know why we drive on parkways and park on driveways but today I hope you'll settle for an explanation of "turnpike" as a synonym for toll road. Centuries ago, a pike was a weapon consisting of a spearhead on a wooden pole. On early toll roads, pike-like barriers would be placed across the road. These poles could be raised (or turned) on a vertical pivot to allow entry once the toll was paid. Hence, "turnpike."

Send your questions to Roger Schlueter, Belleville News-Democrat, 120 S. Illinois St., P.O. Box 427, Belleville, IL 62222-0427 or rschlueter@bnd.com or call 618-239-2465.

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