What I really like about teaching are questions. Unexpected questions. And this thrill of unknown following them immediately. Last Monday, when we were practicing conference calls, studying some typical phrases, finally it happened. One of the words occurred to be the trigger to quite a long investigation. “After you hear the sound, press pound, please.” Pound? We call it hash – the students reacted immediately, leaving me, as an inexperienced Polish English teacher with a question mark all over my face.
As I don’t like questions without answers I started analyzing the topic straight away after I got home. What I found out really went above my expectations.
Surprisingly to track down the history of hash, we have to go back to more distant past than the year when Twitter was founded. The majority of sources send me back to the ancient Roman times and a sunny market day.
We are at the Ancient Roman forum. Imagine a colorful crowd walking in and out of basilicas where different kinds of products are being sold. People are bargaining the products, trying to establish the best price. Someone is shouting 1 libra of flour! 1 ounce of rosemary! 2 libras of grain! Observing this crowd a bit jaw dropped, we are suddenly stung by the sound of these two letters. Libra, libra, lb…
Let’s move back to contemporaneity. We are in the shop, buying some food for the week. We take some cereals, flour, maybe peas or some sugar. How many times have we wondered reading the back of the package what the hell these two letters at the bottom mean. 1 lb/16oz . And only then would we remember this sunny day in Ancient Rome and someone shouting 1 libra of cereals!
These two letters give us the clear gist of the ubiquity of Latin. And only then do we realise that currency symbol, £, L with a horizontal bar across it, also derives from these two letters. Though it sounds really comforting and it seems we can sit still after finding this information, but how come pound became hash? What was the way from L with horizontal bar to the cross with two parallel bent lines?
Everyone knows what a regular phone keyboard looks like. It consists of 10 numbers gathered in 4 rows with 0 in the last line. There is an asterisk on its left and our mysterious hash/pound on its right. The question is, why some people would read it hash and some pound?
The investigation leads us to the beginning of the 20th century to the times when first telegraphs were being invented. Baudot was one of the fathers of modern telecommunication. He came up with one of the first telegraphic systems. It was a 5-bit code. That means it consisted of 5 keys that allowed to send letters to the other end of the line. Because it was 5-bit code it allowed just 32 different combinations so it was too few to send both letters, numbers and symbols. Therefore some of the combinations after shifting stood either for a letter or a number. And here almost goes the explanation of the mystery: letter H had the same key combination as the pound symbol.
So in telegraphing to say 1 pound was the same as to say 1 H. So we’re almost there! We need to answer the question, how H became hash. Fortunately H seems to be closer to sign number than £, so maybe it will not be such a hard nut to crack. We can’t deny though, that H lacks one more bar and is far too straight in comparison with hash sign. Therefore, I reach for our last aid kit – the etymology dictionary. I delve in the world of meaning then and try to explore the history of the word hash.
The etymological dictionary online says that hash is nothing else but a mixture of something, a mess, also a dish made of chopped up meat. It gives me a blurry gist of the concept behind this word but I’m more than happy to read that it is also a slang army word for a mark on the sleeve of the uniform. These bars on the soldier’s arm represent the years of service. One bar usually stands for one 3-years period.
It seems that we are closer and closer. I still don’t understand why would anybody call these bars hashes, but their shape combined with letter H seems to match perfectly. After removing the bar from letter H and crossing the remaining two with the cursive army bars we get something alike hash sign, don’t we?
Though still I can’t find information to confirm my speculations I’ll try to trust my intuition. The other remaining topic, that leaves quite a vast space for investigation seems hashtagging.
First it appeared as a way of denoting immediate address modes in program language, later they became the way of denoting key words and finally they came into being on Twitter to refer to the main topics of interest.
So this is the mess one word brought about. And I love it, though it cost me at least two afternoons to understand;)