A Little Clarity, Part 1

I come from the advertising/print industry originally, though I’ve been in the advertising/digital industry for the past twenty-three years. And I’ve seen some terminology transposed from one to the other. Sometimes that terminology works in the translation while other times it does not.

And so, being the nit-picker that I am, I’m starting a new category on those terms that bug me the most.

The one that bugs me the most is “dpi” in this digital world. But I’m going to save that one until later. Right now I want to talk about this “#” symbol.

It’s been called a “number symbol”, a “pound symbol”, and lately a “hash symbol”. I have news: it’s all of those. But first, let’s not confuse this symbol with a few others that are very similar in appearance, such as the sharp symbol in music, that being ♯, or a Chinese character, that being .

A little history: the Romans had a symbol denoting pound weight, that being “℔”. Over time, this symbol was simplified to look like the featured symbol pictured above. Usage of the symbol for pound weight goes back to at least 1850 in this country. By the second half of the 19th century, there were typewriters in the United States equipped with the # key, and the user’s manual reflected the use of that key being specifically for expressing both number and pound weight, depending on placement of the symbol—just before a number to denote the ordinal number itself, and just after a number to denote pound weight.

Printers and paper salesmen (salespersons in the PC world) have long used the “#” symbol after a number to denote the pound weight of paper in text and cover stock, such as “24# text”. Manufacturers of pencils refer to the ratio of graphite/clay used in the writing instruments by a number designation, such as “#2 pencil”, an example of an ordinal distinction.

This traditional usage prevailed until the advent of digital telephone keypads, where the symbol became known as the pound sign. Today we still refer to that as the pound sign on phone keypads. The font used on your specific phone for that symbol may vary, but the designation is the same.

In the United Kingdom, the symbol has been referred to as a “hash”, a derivative of the word “hatch”, meaning cross-hatch (artists will recognize that reference, those of us who’ve done pen & ink sketches with a cross-hatch technique to add tonality to the basic black and white medium). That likeness is probably the best reference we have as to how the term hashtag came about, and was introduced by Chris Messina, a noted advocate for open Internet standards, in 2007 to denote a metadata tag for group use on social networks such as Twitter (but even he referred to the symbol as “pound” when first trying to establish the tag). You know the symbol is a hash when it precedes a word or phrase.

So it depends on circumstance as to the name of the pictured symbol.

Next week, I’ll dive into that “dpi” thing.

 

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2 thoughts on “A Little Clarity, Part 1

  1. This is a VERY informative and enlightening post, Dan.

    I learned something with just about every line.

    Looking forward to the next one on “dpi.” Is this a new baseball metric?

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