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What Is a Hashtag and How Is a Hashtag Used?

What Is a Hashtag Used For and How Has the Hashtag Developed?

In May 2015, the Oxford University Press announced that hashtag was "the children's word of the year."

Even though the hashtag symbol (#) has been used in telecommunications since the 1960s, today's young communicators (i.e., phone and computer users) will know the hashtag for its use as a search aid on social-media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram. However, the word "hashtag" or the symbol "#" has evolved. It is now being used in everyday speech and writing.

Using a Hashtag in Everyday Speech and Writing

It is becoming increasingly common to see a hashtag being used in everyday speech and writing to add a short, often witty, summarizing comment or additional comment at the end of a sentence. #Imgettingold

For example:
  • Mark didn't catch a single fish again this weekend. #whatnofish
  • (This is an example of a hashtag being used to add a summarizing comment.)
  • Mark is not coming to the party on Saturday. #mummysboy
  • (This is an example of a hashtag being used to add an additional comment.)

How Is the Hashtag Used on Social Media?

On social-media, a hashtag is used to group users' comments under a common theme to assist with searching. For example:
  • I think his belt size is equator. #BGT
  • Well, that's two minutes of my life I'll never get back. #BGT
By searching #BGT (which, incidentally, is the hashtag for Britain's Got Talent), a user can view all the other users' comments that have been appended with #BGT.

Unfortunately, popular hashtags are often hijacked by people trying to get their message in front of a large audience. For example:
  • Fancy a pizza right now but got no cash? Get a loan in 10 minutes. #BGT

Other Names for the Hashtag

Other names for the hashtag include (in our assessed order of popularity):
  • Hash
  • A hashtag is commonly called a hash. (Of interest, this is believed to be a corruption of the word hatch, referring to cross hatching.)

  • Number Sign
  • The hashtag is commonly used to mean "number". (For example, Number 1 can be written #1.) This almost certainly derives from its use in early programming languages. (The term number sign is an internationally recognized name for the hashtag.)

  • Pound Sign
  • The symbol for pound in weight is "lb" (from the Latin libra pondo). In the early days of printing, to avoid the lowercase "l" being confused with the number 1, a line was drawn across the "lb". Over time, this evolved into the hashtag. (In the US, the hashtag is still used to denote a pound in weight when it follows a number. For example, 4 pounds is written 4#.)

  • Pound Key
  • Shift 3 on your keyboard will either be a pound sign () or a hashtag (#). It all depends on which keyboard template you're using. In the past, printers linked to home computers would often erroneously print # instead of (or vice versa). This is the root of why the hashtag is also called the pound key. (NB: This is not to be confused with the term pound sign, which has far earlier provenance and is based on a pound in weight.)

  • Gate
  • The hashtag is also known as the gate sign (as it looks like a gate).

  • Square Sign
  • The term square sign is rarely used nowadays. It derives from an attempt to find a word for the symbol that appears in every language. While the idea was sound, the name never caught on (most probably because the symbol is not square!).

  • Tic-Tac-Toe Sign
  • As the hashtag looks the same as the grid for the game Tic-Tac-Toe, it is often called the Tic-Tac-Toe sign.

  • Noughts and Crosses Sign
  • In the UK, a hashtag is sometimes called the noughts and crosses sign. (NB: The game Tic-Tac-Toe is known as Noughts and Crosses in the UK.)

  • Octothorpe
  • The use of the hashtag symbol in telecommunications stems from the early 1960s when laboratories needed a key on the telephone keypad to enable telephones to communicate with computers. The term octothorpe was reportedly invented by engineers at Bell Labs in the USA. This term was used in preference to pound sign or number sign, which they felt would more likely be misinterpreted by telephone users, particularly when the term was translated into other languages. As a result, they created a brand new term whose meaning could not be misconstrued. (Octo derives from the Latin for eight. There is no consensus on the derivation of thorpe, but it may derive from the old Norse word for village, which later came to mean place.)

Do Not Confuse the Hashtag with the Sharp Sign

The sharp symbol (♯) should not be confused with the # symbol. Although they look similar, the "horizontal" lines on a sharp symbol rise from left to right (to avoid being obscured by the staff lines on sheet music) and its vertical lines are truly vertical. In contrast, the hashtag's horizontal lines are truly horizontal, but its vertical lines lean to the right.