Weekly Word Watch: from hashtag to acrostic
It’s time for our second Weekly Word Watch. This week, the news served up words dealing with everything from cell-phone biscuits to pop-star PR.
Twitter’s trendsetter, the hashtag, turned 10 years old on Wednesday 23rd August. Tech advocate Chris Messina originally proposed the hash sign, #, for organizing groups on Twitter in August 2007, adopting earlier uses of the sign in computer science going back to the 1970-80s.
how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?
— ⌗ChrisMessina (@chrismessina) August 23, 2007
And, as the Oxford English Dictionary attests, just two days later Twitter user Stowe Boyd became the first to use the term ‘hash tag’, making Friday 25th August the 10th anniversary of the word itself.
— Stowe Boyd (@stoweboyd) August 25, 2007
Also called the number sign, octothorp, and, confusing spenders of sterling, pound sign, the hash in hashtag probably comes from hatch, describing the character’s telltale crisscross markings. The tag refers to the symbol’s use to indicate, or tag, metadata in information technology.
While the OED only welcomed it into its records in 2014, the hashtag has already had a major influence on modern culture, from viral diversions like the #TheDress to activist movements like #BlackLivesMatter. Thanks to the prominence of social media in our lives, the hashtag has even shaped the way we speak, with people saying hashtag as humorous commentary on what they are talking about, e.g., ‘You know, Taylor, I love our little midday coffee breaks. Hashtag it’s the little things’.
Speaking of social media, singer Taylor Swift took to Instagram to tease her newest album, called reputation. The name is a timely, personal, and incisive choice, given the megastar’s recent rows in the public spotlight, from Kardashian kerfuffles to her victorious verdict in a sexual assault lawsuit.
The English language has been concerned with its reputation, so to speak, since the late 14th century. Early instances especially used the term in the phrase of reputation, e.g., a person of reputation, or a person of credit, fame, respect, or otherwise good report.
Coming into English from French, the word is ultimately from the Latin reputare (hence repute), ‘to think over’, joining re-, ‘again’, -and putare, ‘think, suppose’. In much older Latin, putare actually meant ‘to prune’, the act of trimming likened to reckoning the final tally. The verb also shows up in impute and compute.
While umbraphiles were gazing up at the solar eclipse this week, Google wanted you to look down – at your phone. The search engine giant debuted the latest operating system for its Android 8.0 mobile phones, dubbed Oreo, after the chocolate, cream-stuffed, sandwich biscuit beloved by many a milk-dipper.
Android has named its new versions for sweets and desserts in alphabetical order starting with Cupcake, Donut, and Eclair in 2009. After letter N (Nougat), they apparently deemed Oreo, though trademarked since 1912, the most recognizable confection starting with O. Perhaps if Android operated out of London and not the San Francisco Bay Area, however, we’d be updating to Android Orange Jaffa.
The origin of the name Oreo is itself lost. One theory, among other colorful ones, thinks it’s taken from the French for gold (or), alluding to the treat’s original gold packaging.
Oreo is also slang for a person who, like the biscuit, is ‘black on the outside but white in the middle’, stereotyping a black person who displays behaviors, beliefs, or attitudes associated with white culture. This term dates back to the 1960s, when it was also used for gay black men who have sex with white partners.
In an age where governments, institutions, and companies can collect increasing amounts of our personal data, concerns about privacy are more urgent – and discussions of its legal definition more disputed – than ever. Sparked by suits over the country’s controversial Aadhaar biometric database, the Indian Supreme Court weighed in this week, ruling privacy is ‘an inalienable fundamental right guaranteed under the constitution’, as the BBC reported.
We’ve been protecting our privacy in this sense of the word since the 1500-1600s. The root is the Latin privus, ‘separate, one’s own’, which made its way into English via French in the form of privy as early as 1220 in an important medieval manuscript, the Ancrene Riwle. If you’re privy to a secret, you’re intimate enough with someone’s private dealings. Privy, as in ‘toilet’, where we also like our privacy, is also first attested in the Ancrene Riwle.
Word games are an innocent enough pastime, no? Not if you’re resigning from the Trump administration. Announcing he was stepping down as a science envoy for the US State Department after Trump’s response to Charlottesville, Daniel Kammen wrote a letter containing, apparently, a secret message: the first letter of the first word in each paragraph spells out IMPEACH. This technique is called an acrostic, and it follows RESIST, which the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities’ evidently snuck in its own protest resignation.
Often appearing in poems, acrostic comes from Greek akros, ‘end’, and stikhos, ‘line’. (The English spelling ultimately fashioned the latter root into the much more familiar, though unrelated, word ending, -ic). Lewis Carroll and Edgar Allen Poe have famously fashioned acrostics, while the Ichthys, (or ichthus) the Christian symbol and Greek word for ‘fish’, is sometimes taken as an acrostic for Ieosus Christ Theou Yios Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior).
Acrostics aren’t exactly strangers to politics, though. After Newfoundland joined Canada in the 1940s, its last British governor, Gordon Macdonald, penned an ironic paean with a stroppy surprise: the initial letters of each line spelled out THE BASTARD.