Hashtags: A Brief Account of a Long History

Image courtesy of Rollingout.com

Image courtesy of Rollingout.com

Today, the # symbol is easily recognized as a “hashtag.” Its current identity is solidly connected to Twitter and is commonplace in the world of social media. My earliest memory of the # symbol belongs in the post-rotary, pre-smartphone dark ages of the ’70s. The “pound” button offered a few options to traditional telephone mechanics, but these are nothing compared to what it can do for us today.

But I digress.

Keith Houston, author of Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, recently wrote a guest post for the New Yorker.  To discover the origin of the # symbol, Houston returns us to the fourteenth century. Here we find an introduction of the Latin abbreviation “lb,” for the Roman term libra pondo, or “pound weight.”

Later, in the seventeenth century, we can see the “lb” abbreviation is still in use. The cursory penmanship of busy scribes dashed the “lb” abbreviation into its current shape. Enter the #.


Left, from Isaac Newton; right, from Johann Conrad Barchusen’s “Pyrosophia” (1698)
Courtesy of the Othmer Library of Chemical History

Though the form evolved from libra pondo to lb to #, its meaning remained unchanged, as “pound weight,” for many years.

Later, the # symbol was referred to as the “hash mark,” “number sign” and “octothorpe” as it applied to telephone technologies.

It wasn’t until 2007 that the “hashtag” was proposed for use on Twitter to organize content and target specific audience interests.

This infographic was created by Offerpop and walks us through the past six years of the hashtag’s growing application innovations and, therefore,  importance in the social media landscape.

History of #Hashtags Infographic by Offerpop

History of #Hashtags
Infographic by Offerpop

Highlights in the short yet impactful infancy of the Twitter based hashtag include its first Super Bowl appearance in 2011 and its employment as a real-time conversation organizer during the Arab Spring later that same year.

Today, hashtags allow Twitter users to categorize communications into a simplified searchable and linkable format. However, there are a few rules of etiquette to keep this simplification tool simple:

1: DON’T OVERUSE – Use a maximum of two hashtags in your tweets.

2: KEEP THEM SHORT – Tweets are restricted to 140 characters, you don’t want a hashtag to take up 50% of the letters in your tweet.

3: DEFINE YOUR TAG – A tag directory, such as tagdef.com, can give your tag a meaning. you can also search for the meaning of existing tags.

4: NO SPACES – Spaces preceding the hashtag will break the link.

As users find innovative ways to apply new meaning and applications to the hashtag, its story will continue to evolve. I wonder what this historically rich symbol will imply in the future. Will Millenials replace “pound” with “hastag” once and for all? Will the shape of the # symbol morph again?

Undoubtedly, distance will be gained between my first ’70s version and whatever is to come in the future.



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2 responses to “Hashtags: A Brief Account of a Long History

  1. Valerie Galic

    Finally, an explanation! More and more frequently, I ask myself #wthdtcf (where the hell did that come from)? It isn’t easy being a Millenial, especially one with occasional Luddite tendencies. I’m never sure if my aversion to “quick speak” is a justified response to the disintegration of meaningful communication or just a reaction to my inability to keep up. Tweeting, not yet. Reading this blog, yes. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and insights.

  2. Pingback: Best of 2013 | PR Landscape

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