A post from Shady Characters

Miscellany № 24: Sharp Words

France is famously protective of its language. Its latest bête noire is the hashtag, Twitter’s word for the combination of an octothorpe, or hash, and a term of interest, like this: #octothorpe. Only a scant few months after the New York Times wrote in praise of the hashtag, this innocuous neologism now finds itself officially denounced by the Orwellian-sounding Commission Générale de Terminologie et de Néologie (CGTN). As The Local wrote recently,

One of the [CGTN]’s roles is ‘to encourage the presence of the French language on social media networks’ […] Defined as a “series of characters preceded by the # symbol”, the word ‘mot-dièse’, literally meaning ‘sharp word’, will now be used in all official documents.1

In French at least, the hashtag is no more: make way for the officially sanctioned mot-dièse, or ‘sharp word’.2

I was ready to dismiss this as a rather tone-deaf pronouncement, a knee-jerk reaction by France’s notorious language police, but there was something familiar about the term dièse. It sounded, in fact, very much like ‘diesis’, the English term for the double dagger symbol (‡) often used as a tertiary footnote marker after the asterisk (*) and dagger (†). Looking back through my notes for the Shady Characters book, I found that ‘diesis’ was formerly used to mean a musical sharp sign, or ‘♯’, while contemporary French continues to use the related term dièse for that same mark.3 And even more to the point, as Shady Characters’ sharp-eyed commenters explain below, dièse is also the French term for the hash sign.

Thus, the CGTN’s excommunication of the term ‘hashtag’ may not be so sinister after all: rather than inventing some entirely new term, France’s language authorities have simply chosen to elevate the common-or-garden hashtag to the same status as its refined, cultured doppelgänger, the sharp sign. From now on, I will picture French hashtags as the melodic counterparts of their English versions: ‘♯octothorpe’ is just that bit prettier than ‘#octothorpe’, is it not?

McPartland, Ben. “France Bins Twitter’s ’hashtag’ for Gallic Word”. Stockholm: The Local Europe AB, January 2013.


Terminologie et de Néologie, Commission Générale de. “Mot-dièse”. Legifrance.gouv.fr, January 2013.


OED Online. “Diesis”.


20 comments on “Miscellany № 24: Sharp Words

  1. Comment posted by The Corresponder on

    Well, the word dièse actually is the French term for the pound symbol/hash symbol, not only the sharp sign, so the language authorities are not choosing to see the symbol differently, as lovely a notion as that might be. The new word just means “hashword”.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      And thus are my illusions crushed. I’ll have to dig deeper into the Oxford French Dictionary next time.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Comment posted by H James Lucas on

      I’m not a French speaker, but isn’t ‘croisillon’ the French term for the pound/hash?

    3. Comment posted by H James Lucas on

      I would wager my lunch money that the Académie française is unambiguous about the distinction between the ♯ dièse and the # croisillon (if their architecture is indication, no one would be more attuned to the subtle geometric differences than the French!). Having said that, I certainly lack even the faintest intuition about common usage. I’ll have to follow up on your link over my lunch hour, hopefully before I lose the wager and go hungry.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Fitoschido,

      Absolutely – censorship of language is precisely what Orwell was satirising. On the up side, the very fact that we’re talking about the whole thing indicates that the Streisand Effect is in full flow. And at least the CGTN chose a picturesque and not entirely unrelated replacement. Time will tell whether it sticks!

      Thanks for the comment.

  2. Comment posted by Bob Farrell on

    Keith, in the interest of avoiding misinformation, might I suggest that you make an edit to your original article, rather than relying on the correction in the comments regarding the meaning of the word “dièse” ? I can already picture people at cocktail parties wowing one another with this story of French eloquence and elegance when, in fact, it is an altogether logical and rather mundane choice of word. This is how factually incorrect rumours get started. :)

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Bob,

      It’s a fair cop! Much as I would like to be the one to have livened up cocktails parties and office cooler conversations, I’ve edited the post accordingly.

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by Ron on

    Just did a quick and completely unscientific search of Le Monde, Le Figaro and Le Parisen online. I searched separately for the word “hashtag” and the word “dièse”. Apart from stories or posts about the new edict, “dièse” appeared only in its musical sense, while “hashtag” was used in reference to Twitter.

    In some of these posts “hashtag” was given a parenthetical explanation, such as “key word” or “key word used to group Tweets by subject” and on others the term was used without explanation. One post on Le Monde about the new terminology had its own hashtag: “pathetique”.

    1. Comment posted by The Corresponder on

      I’ve never used Ngrams, and not being curious enough to figure it out, I’ll leave it to you if you’re curious–in every day parlance, we cut the “e” off and call email “mail” (as a native bilingual, I find it rather humorous), and I’d be curious the Ngrams result for “mail” versus “email.”

    2. Comment posted by Adam Rice on

      Interestingly, it’s the same in Japanese. One can write 電子メール (denshi me–ru, “electronic mail”), but most people say/write just メール (me–ru), which unambiguously means “e-mail.”

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Adam,

      Is this perhaps down to the fact that me-ru is a loan word and as such stands out on its own? Does snail mail have a different, native Japanese name?

      Thanks for the comment!

    4. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

      Unfortunately for your post, Keith, if you substitute a later year, such as 2010, for 200o in N-Grams, you will find that courriel caught up to email in 2000 and is now twice as common (at least in the “books” that Google is searching). But mail dominates, as it always has.

      According to Wiktionary, the French word mail or mél is not used for snail mail, but (with a different etymology and pronunciation) also means mallet, mall (promenade) or, in Québec, shopping mall. In French email sounds like emaille, a kind of enamel, but the context should make it clear—I never coat my messages in a glassy glaze.

    5. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      That’s odd — for some reason, I can only run ngram queries up to 2008. Do you have a link for one that includes 2010?

  4. Comment posted by Solo Owl on

    Come to think of it, an emaille message might be appropriate for a marriage proposal or the like, n’est-ce pas?

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