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#Hashtag or #Octothorpe · 23 May 2015


Young people call them hashtags, but they are really pound signs or number signs. Or more technically, octothorpes.


I never heard of an octothorpe (or octothorp or octatharp or octatherp) until we were having supper one night. Seems that my kids know lots more than me. About seemingly everything. Or at least everything you can find on the internet. Which seems to be just about everything in the universe. (It is mindboggling thinking that the universe could be contained on the internet.)


At any rate, we were having a conversation at supper when some topic I do not remember was brought up as a great writing topic for MediocreMan. (Could you hear the fanfare as you read my moniker?) Then we went on to other topics and finally, Thing 3 brought up the word “octothorpe.”


We must have been talking about Twitter and other social media, which contrary to popular culture, none of my boys really seem to be that enamored with. It could be because Thing 1 is the only one with a smart phone and tied into the interweb twenty-four seven, but the boys seem to have little use for social media. They all have Facebook accounts, but none of them uses them much. In fact, they really show disdain for social media and lament the fact that they need to use it at all.


Which brings us to the octothorpe.


When Thing 2 and Thing 3 were showing their disdain for social media, I brought up the fact that I use both Facebook and Twitter. To keep up with people (or at least spy on them a little) and to promote my writing (not doing so well with that one). That was when the octothorpe came in.


It seems social media junkies like to actually use their digital jargon in real conversations. We have all heard people say, “LOL” when they mean laugh out loud or instead of giving a courtesy laugh. (I hear LOL in my classroom every once in a while when I try to make a joke, but usually not until I tell them that they were supposed to laugh.) The other thing people like to insert into conversations is the word “Hashtag.”


On Twitter (and I suppose other social media), the pound sign or “hashtag” is used like a topic sentence. If a bunch of people use the same hashtag on their posts, the topic is said to be “trending.” (It is interesting how people put “-ing” onto the end of a noun to make it a verb, but that is a topic for another day.) People who tweet a lot seem to think that saying “Hashtag” in front of their topic is a way to bring attention to said topic in a conversation. (I never seem to be trending because I never hear anybody say, “Hashtag Miyoshi.”) At any rate, it is rather funny how the internet and social media have invaded conversation IRL (that means “In Real Life” from what I understand about teenspeak).


Teenagers all seem to know about this hashtag social media convention whether they use social media or not. So much so that Thing 3, whose social life consists mostly of Skype, brought up the ubiquitous octothorpe.


I am not sure why Thing 3 knows that the number symbol or hashtag is called an octothorpe, but somehow he does. I wondered how he knew about it and he just shrugged, “I found it on the internet.” (I think he surfs the internet in his sleep or something.) So naturally, I needed to find out more about this strange word and symbol.


According to the internet, the word octothorpe was invented by some folks at Bell Labs. Which is why it makes sense that it is on every phone. But Wikipedia and Wiktionary differ slightly on how the octothorpe came into being.


Like I said, Wikipedia and Wiktionary both agree that somebody from Bell Labs brought the term octothorpe into being in the current age, but Wiktionary quotes noted Canadian poet and typographer, Robert Bringhurst’s thoughts about its origin. “In cartography, [the octothorp] is a traditional symbol for village: eight fields around a central square. That is the source of its name. Octothorp means eight fields.” (From octo-(“eight”) and thorpe (“field, hamlet or small village”).) Whether it is true or not, it actually makes sense.


I suppose it does not really matter where the term originated. I just thought it was funny. After all, I told my family, it does not even have eight anythings, so why would anybody call it an octo-something-or-other. I am sure they all looked at me dumbfounded (which happens all too often at our house or at least it enhances the story when I say it that way, and what does dumbfounded mean anyway? that somebody just found out somebody else was dumb, that does not make any sense, at least in this case). They could all see that there are certainly eight fields around a village. Not only that, there are eight lines coming out of the central square. That is four sets of two not just four as I had thought (and maybe even said out loud). That was of course, why they were all dumbfounded. I thought eight was four. Or something like that.


Needless to say, they all had a great laugh at my expense.


So to make a long story just a little bit longer, I must admit that I had to think about the shape of an octothorpe. But the great thing about the Wiktionary note about eight fields around a hamlet is that I actually understand it. At least, I got it once I could count. I may not be the brightest bulb in the bunch, but I am not the village idiot either. The surrounding fields make sense. Whether that is how the symbol (and perhaps even the name) came about or not.


When all is said and done, I must admit that I love dinner conversations. Even the ones that have a hearty laugh at my expense. And even though the octothorpe was not the extent of our conversation, it provided stimulating conversation and plenty of entertainment for our family.


So to all you social media-ites, promote a little hashtagging about the octothorpe. Maybe #octothorpe will bring nice conversation and entertainment to your family supper too.

© 2015 Michael T. Miyoshi

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