Benjamin Zimmer and Charles Carson of the American Dialect Society have released Among The New Words (American Speech, Vol. 88, No. 1, Spring 2013), and which lays down the lineaments of the invention and naming of the now mainstream hashtag.
Benjamin Zimmer, Charles Carson, Among The New Words
Hashtag represented the third time in the last four years that the WoTY winner has come from the world of technology: tweet was selected for 2009 and app for 2010. The convention of the hashtag (a word or phrase pre- ceded by the hash symbol #) has, since its inception on Twitter in 2007, grown into a powerful organizer for online talk. but beyond simply keeping track of the flow of conversation, the hashtag has been applied to a multitude of other discursive functions, including self-mockery (Ben Zimmer, “#languagenerdalert: A New Tool for Self-Deprecation,” Boston Globe, Sept. 25, 2011, K2).
Befitting such a flexible conversational tool, the term hashtag itself has flourished with multiple meanings. Whereas it has typically referred to a string of characters prefixed by the hash symbol, now it often gets used for the symbol itself. And it has crept into oral use, in a spoken equivalent of the Twitter convention, as in “hashtag fail” or “hashtag Yolo.” Such oral hashtagging, while linguistically notable, does not appear destined for success if it remains a self-conscious callback to the online form. overuse for marketing purposes does little to help the term’s long-term fortunes, either: while hosting the 2013 Grammys, ll Cool j took the trend to absurd levels by using hashtag six times in 20 seconds (“i’ve been backstage reading all your tweets about hashtag Grammys… we’re going to see hashtag Carrie Underwood, hashtag jack White, hashtag Kelly Clarkson, hashtag bruno mars, and hashtag Sting”).
Hashtag also illustrates how even very new terms are prey to faulty or incomplete memories about their origins. While Chris Messina is recognized as the “hashtag godfather” for first proposing the convention in online discussions among early adopters of Twitter in August 2007, he did not come up with the term hashtag himself. Messina made the suggestion of using the hash symbol in a tweet on August 23; two days later, he followed up with a post on his FactoryCity blog in which he dubbed his creation “channel tags” or “tag channels.” Another participant in these early discussions, Stowe Boyd, tweeted his approval on August 25: “I support the hash tag convention.” After that first attributive usage, Boyd continued using the term hash tag (written as two words) on his blog on August 26. Messina and Boyd did not fully recall this sequence of events when asked about it on Twitter. Fortunately, it is possible to reconstruct such cyberhistory thanks to archived tweets and blog posts.
It’s worthwhile to note that others — like Anil Dash — did recall the sequence of events involved in the reuse of IRC chat tags in Twitter by Chris Messina, and my calling it a hashtag.
It’s also worth noting that Messina and I were involved at the time in a Twitter and blog-based discussion about membership in groups versus what I call ‘groupings’. In a post at the time, Messina specifically referenced my writings on groupings. A grouping is a collection of people that share attributes in common, like the use of a certain tag on their blog posts, or frequent a certain bar, or study a particular martial art. So the set of people that have written about ‘Hemingway’ are a grouping, or those that have tagged a photo ‘Golden Gate Bridge’. So these people form a sort of a group, but one they weren’t invited to: their own actions make them a member of the grouping.
My argument then (see Hash Tags = Twitter Groupings) was that tags in Twitter would wind up being used in the same way: an indication of the nature of the contents of the tweet. But in aggregate, everyone that uses the hashtag ‘TEDx’ are a grouping, and that self-selected identification could be an important cultural marker. And that’s pretty much what happened.
Chris was trying to suggest that tags could be used to direct tweets to specific defined groups of people (‘channels’), more like Google+ Circles than the way that hashtags are generally used. But he is the guy that started the convention, and I completely forgot that I named it, until Ben Zimmer’s research turned it up.
I also coined the term ‘microsyntax’ to represent the use of special characters, acronyms and keywords in Twitter and elsewhere as syntactic markers (like ‘#’, ‘@’, and ‘RT’), but that term hasn’t become widely used.