Writing exclusively for the Penguin Blog, Keith Houston – Shady Characters author and etymologist extraordinaire – takes us through the fascinating history of those ubiquitous symbols, the # (aka. the octothorpe) and the @. #HappyReadingPenguins
The average tweet is not an especially remarkable thing. It can contain letters (and almost always does), marks of punctuation (perhaps more of an acquired taste in this context), and pictures (mostly of cats and/or the photographer themselves). But in amongst these most conventional components of modern written communication are two special symbols around which orbits the whole edifice of Twitter. Neither letters nor marks of punctuation, the @- and #-symbols scattered throughout Twitter’s half billion daily messages are integral to its workings. And yet, they have always been interlopers amongst our written words.
Both ‘@’ and ‘#’ first crept into view during the Renaissance. How the ‘@’ came about is still the subject of some dispute – it may have been an accented French à, grown elaborate and careless with the passage of time, or an abbreviation for the word amphora, an ancient unit of measure – but whatever the truth of the matter, the symbol itself came to represent the word “at” as in the statement “five apples at fifty pence each”. It was a well-used symbol among the mercantile classes, if one that received little other attention, and as such it was a shoo-in for inclusion on typewriters and later computer keyboards.
The genesis of the ‘#’, on the other hand, is better attested. It comes from the abbreviation ‘lb’, for the Latin libra pondo or “pound in weight”, which was often accessorised by an additional stroke of the pen signalling that it was a stand-in for a longer term. Over the years and centuries, this barred ‘℔’ morphed into the more familiar ‘#’ as scribes, scientists and merchants mangled it in their haste to jot down notes, cargo manifests, and formulas. Thus the so-called “pound sign” was, in its original form, nothing more than a sign for the word “pound”.
Fast-forward to the twentieth century and both the ‘@’ and the ‘#’ were commonly found on the typewriters on which the world conducted its business – and, too, the computer keyboards that were steadily replacing them. In 1971, then, when a software engineer named Ray Tomlinson wanted to test out his hacked-together “electronic mailbox” software, he picked the ‘@’ from his terminal’s keyboard to separate the recipient’s name from the server where their mailbox lived. There were precious few symbols to choose from, most of which had already been adopted by the burgeoning computing industry, but the ‘@’ stood out both as a free agent and one with a coincidentally useful name. “user@computer” translated neatly to the spoken words “user at computer”, and so the email addressing scheme we still use today was born. Thus it was that when Twitter, in its turn, was hunting for a symbol to prefix user names, Tomlinson’s ‘@’ was the natural choice. When I want Twitter maestro Stephen Fry to see my tweet, for example, I write “Hey @stephenfry – why won’t you return my calls?” In response, the computing machinery that powers the social network works out that I’m tweeting at a user named “stephenfry” and ensures that my message pops up in his crowded timeline.
The hash mark, on the other hand, helps Twitter group related messages together. When ‘#’ appears in front of a word, Twitter recognises that word as a “hashtag” – a sort of ad hoc label that marks a tweet as relating to a particular topic. A click on the “#baftas” hashtag, for example, still turns up a host of tweets about this year’s awards show: among other things, a picture of David Beckham in his tuxedo, coverage of the winners and their acceptance speeches, and ironic commentary on the proceedings (“Tom Cruise looks like he’s wearing the Tom Cruise mask from Mission Impossible III. #baftas”). Hashtags are often co-opted for ironic purposes (#firstworldproblems), but perhaps more ironic is that hashtags themselves almost never came to pass. Back in 2007, when one of its earliest users proposed the “#topic” construction as a way of grouping tweets, Twitter’s founder Ev Williams pooh-poohed the idea. “#this” or “#that” was too nerdy for mainstream users, he said, and his company planned to write software algorithms to sort through tweets instead. Unfortunately for Williams’ Skynet vision of the future, it was difficult to ignore the epidemic of ‘#’-marks spreading throughout his users’ tweets. Twitter eventually capitulated, elevating the ‘#’ to take its place alongside the ‘@’ in the social network’s rarefied two-symbol lexicon. Having survived the successive inventions of moveable type, the typewriter, computing and the internet, these two unassuming symbols look set to stay with us a while yet.
Keith Houston started writing about the stories behind different marks of punctuation back in 2008 and soon discovered that they wove a fascinating trail across the parallel histories of language and typography. He is the founder of ShadyCharacters.co.uk where he brings these typographic raconteurs into the light of day. Published by Particular Books, Shady Characters, his book on the subject, is out now (and we highly recommend it).