In the bid to become the song of the summer, pop artists are using the hashtag symbol to title their songs — from Mariah Carey and Miguel's "#Beautiful" to Busta Rhymes's "#TWERKIT" to Jennifer Lopez and Pitbull's "#LiveItUp." Will.I.Am even used a hashtag to name his whole album "#willpower," which includes a single titled "#thatpower."
"Seems to me as if the hashtag has finally broken free of its Twitter role as a topic marker and set itself up as a free-standing typographic ornament," Geoff Nunberg, a linguist who teaches at the UC Berkeley School of Information, says in an email.
"It's a way of adopting something that everybody recognizes, changing the functionality a little bit, and being creative in the process — making it your own — but showing that you still know what's going on in popular culture," says Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University and author the upcoming "Words on a Screen: The Fate of Reading in an Online World."
The hashtag's origin is credited to tech forefather Chris Messina, who suggested (appropriately, in a tweet) using the # key to classify tweets about groups, events and subjects on Twitter. But it has evolved to inject an extra layer of meaning within each 140 character statement.
"Used in many creative ways, the hashtag ends up being used in jokes, for various memes, for self effacing commentary — a kind of meta-commentary on one's message," says Ben Zimmer, chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com, and a language columnist for the Boston Globe. "It was a very sort of simple straight forward convention that developed on Twitter that people invested with all sorts of special uses."
In a nod to its growing relevance outside it original usage, the American Dialect Society chose the term as its 2012 word of the year (its predecessors include "occupy" and "app"). "Hashtag was emerging from strictly Twitter use to a more cultural use," says Allan Metcalf, executive director of the American Dialect Society. No longer just a social media tool, the # symbol is appearing in text messages and on T-shirts. The term "hashtag" is being said in everyday spoken language.
Linguists now ponder whether the use of the # sign as well as term "hashtag" can sustain its relevancy outside the mode of communication that forged it – particularly as the tide of technology dictates Twitter will go the way of the telegraph or even MySpace in terms of its ubiquity.
"It's possible that the hashtag could outlive the life cycle of Twitter." says Zimmer. "Sometimes the vestiges of technology can outlive the technology itself in our languages."
The artists that have elected to include the hashtag in their song titles may not have put much though into its permanence (or lack thereof), but they are certainly hoping to capitalize on its momentum. Ironically, some wonder if Will.I.Am's "#willpower" is "the death knell of the hashtag." But in interviews, the artist's defense of his hashtag use at least references its categorical origins.