What caused the change from calling "#" a pound sign to calling it a hashtag? Why? I know that Twitter had much to do with the coinage, but how and why did it come about?

  • # has had many names. Off the top of my head: number sign, pound sign, hash, hash sign, octothorp. I am sure there are others. But presumably the dialect of English spoken where Twitter is based prefers the term “hash” or “hash sign” so used it. Feb 22, 2019 at 2:59
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    Because, for some reason, "octothorpmoniker" didn't catch on.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 22, 2019 at 3:23
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    @James McLeod: Twitter is based in the Bay Area. "Hash" was the British word for #. I don't know why there's a geographical anomaly here, but there is. Feb 22, 2019 at 4:06
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    @PeterShor any evidence that it is exclusively British? Feb 22, 2019 at 4:08
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    @JamesMcLeod: Actually looking at Ngrams, it's pretty clear the name started in Britain but was also fairly well established in the U.S. by the time that Twitter started. But I'm sure that "pound sign" was much more common than "hash sign" in the Bay Area when Twitter started using it. Feb 22, 2019 at 4:14

3 Answers 3


A: Merriam-Webster lists the symbol # for "hashtag." In definition, Merriam-Webster says it was first used in 2007 (Ref: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hashtag#note-1) for use on social media. Also states there are many rumors and lists some of them, but that the origin of who coined it to "hashtag" is unknown.

That's it.

If you want more history, start with octothorpe for #. The word just previous to "hashtag." Merriam-Webster dictionary gives definition as the same symbol: the symbol # (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/octothorpe) - who coined that as well is also unknown.

It may be prudent to read the "Did You Know" annotation under MW's "hashtag" and the "octothorpe" definitions. The origin of both names for this symbol "#" is stated as unknown. Rumors around it abound on the internet. The first known use, Merriam-Webster lists for hashtag is 2007. For octothorpe, 1971.

That said, I was born in 1958. I remember it as "octothorpe," and what a rotary telephone looked like before any # in the rotary dial. When "Ma Bell," or Bell Telephone Systems, AT&T had a country wide monopoly on America's telephone system. A system complete with manual handset. A 3 or 4 digit telephone number. Bigger cities had bigger numbers. A human operator used to connect many local, if out of your city to the next city over 5 miles away. All long distance calls were operator assisted. It took time dialing. I think back on all the prank calls I made. How long it took me to keep re-dialing to prank the person or store asking if they had Sir Raleigh (cigars) in a can, and if they did to please let him out. Voice disguised as everyone in town knew each other. Hang up in a time period before phone calls had capability of being traced.

I also remember this flier from 1969. Bell Telephone Systems revolutionary system of "One touch dialing." (see "Bell Telephone Laboratories - "New Experiment in Telephony" Advertisement Flyer. Oct.1969 http://www.obitoftheday.com/post/42841080179/johnkarlin). You can enlarge it and read it for yourself. This system introduced a phased in use, as old operator exchange of dialing "O" to get the operator person to manually to put your call through, you pressed what they coined as the # "octothorpe" key to get into Bell's new revolutionary, operator-less system. I cite myself as the reference, since I was there.

For "hashtag," you can read articles such as "The History of #—and 6 Other Symbols that Rule Twitter (and the Web.") (2013) Time. K. Houston. He got the "octothorpe" right. Many other tidbits, some are conjecture or the rumor mill on who coined "hashtag," but I defer to the caution of Merriam-Webster on this and the same listed under their definition for "octothorpe," that who is responsible for coining these two words is unknown, and leave the rest to you.

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    I graduated with a degree in computer science in 1972. At that time the "official" technical name for the symbol was already "octothorp[e]" (I believe the term made it into some standards documents), though most people called it "pound sign" and many people called it "pig pen".
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 22, 2019 at 3:52
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    @HotLicks: the word "octothorp" started out as a practical joke at Bell Labs. It got out of hand, and the jokesters were afraid to tell their boss that they had loosed an abomination upon the world, so they kept quiet until after they retired. Here is the real story. Feb 22, 2019 at 18:47

Popular social media definition/use was coined by Chris Messina in 2007 explained in this blog post: Groups for Twitter; or A Proposal for Twitter Tag Channels, in their words:

improving contextualization, content filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter. This is a rather messy proposal to that effect.

Working at Twitter (where "@" was popularized), being involved in the early years of data standards and data portability movements, and also being a coder (as alluded to by @TRomano) led them down this path.

This Quora Post is Messina answering your question


In programming contexts involving hashing lookups, the code representing the hash function, which computes an address in the hash-table without the intermediary step of having to consult an index, would often be presented like this:

hash ( tag )

where "tag" is the value being sent to the hash function.

So the origin of the phrase goes back to the terminology used by programmers decades before social media arrived on the scene. Social media was the vehicle for the popularization of the phrase "hashtag".

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