What the #@#@ were ‘hash’ and ‘at sign’ up to before the internet came along?

Posted on May 31, 2016

 

Aside from the letters we use to build words and the numbers that allow us assess quantities, language is full of non-alphanumeric characters that help us communicate.

Some of them (like £, $ and €) denote currency, while others allow us to punctuate and make our writing more meaningful and readable. Others, like the ampersand (&), exist largely for the purposes of speedy writing. If you’re reading this on a PC, you can go to Start – All Programs – Accessories – System Tools – Character Map to see all sorts of glyphs just patiently waiting to be added to your writing.

The internet, and the way we communicate through and about it, has allowed some of these characters to emerge from the also-rans of the miscellaneous character world and come to the forefront of mainstream, everyday usage. Take the at sign (@), without which we wouldn’t be able to send emails, as it’s used to connect the username part of an email address to the domain. An even more recent example is the hash or number sign (#). Now synonymous with Twitter, the symbol’s use was previously pretty limited, exemplified by the fact that Apple didn’t even bother including it on Mac keyboards until the last few years.

These two characters have been around for a long time though, so what roles were they filling as they bided their time waiting for internet, email and social media to give them a new lease of life?

Where it’s @

The at sign, with its humble origins, had no idea that it would one day be used to facilitate instant worldwide communication. It has its roots in accounting and invoicing, where it would be used to indicate the cost of individual units. Even today, an invoice may be itemised as “12 pens @ 50p = £6”, or you might see a sign reading “apples @ 35p each” at your local greengrocer’s store.

It’s never been accepted as a substitute for the word ‘at’ in a sentence, so only the extremely lazy or short of character spaces would put together a sentence like “I’m @ home at the moment”. Email has increased its usage and Twitter has boosted it further, with every Twitter handle starting with @.

Making a # of it

Now usually known as the hash sign, the symbol # has been referred to as everything from the number sign to the octothorp. Before hashtagging, it was mainly used as a substitute for the word ‘number’, as in ‘Symphony #5’.

Long before Twitter, the hash sign was a staple of touchtone phones. You’ll no doubt have had to follow an automated telephone system at some point in your life, and will have been asked to enter something followed by the hash key.

The glyph plays a role in music too, because it’s often used to denote a sharp note, as in C# or F#, although the correct symbol is actually ♯. It can also indicate that printed words are being sung rather than spoken, as is the case in this subtitled Top of the Pops clip from 1997.

The new roles of these two old-timers of the character world show how the internet is changing the way we type and communicate. Which character will be next to find itself in the limelight of a new 21st-Century role?

John Murray

Content Team Leader at Engage Web
John works for Engage Web as a Content Team Leader and regularly contributes to the website and programmes of his beloved Chester F.C.

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