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?