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How to refer to the '#' button on the phone so that every (or at least, most) user would understand?

The name 'hash' sounds quite technical. While every programmer do (should) understand what is 'hash', I'm not sure if I should expect it from the non-programmer.

In Polish, it's referred as 'kratka' (grid, grille), which is quite mnemonic, however some users still find to identify it (they are looking for some physical grid or anyway).

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    If you aren't sure non-programmers understand 'hash', then what about hashtags? Has such a thing not given the word 'hash' more takeup by the general public? – JonW Jul 30 '14 at 8:00
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    @Lukasz Where are the users of this service likely to be from? Are you primarily US based? Primarily UK/Australia based? Or are you likely to have users from multiple English speaking regions? In the US 'pound sign' is very common, in the UK 'Number Sign' or 'Hash symbol' would be a more recognisable choice. Or are you looking for a universal (English speaking) solution? – OpenTage Jul 30 '14 at 9:43
  • Universal English (not only native) speaking solution :) – Danubian Sailor Jul 30 '14 at 9:47
  • This is where colloquialism comes in, the key has numerous uses and numerous names, targeting your audience would be the way to go. – DarrylGodden Jul 30 '14 at 10:12
  • related question: ux.stackexchange.com/q/62095/40110 – Code Maverick Jul 30 '14 at 18:07
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Hash is very standard, and the term is certainly recognised in the public domain due to social media terminology.

If users were still confused I would subsequently offer 'Pound' then 'Sharp' in that order.

  • Pound and Sharp would be completely wrong for a British English Audience. Although I agree that most people have probably learnt it, the symbol actually means 'number', as in # 1, #2 etc. It's originally an American symbol. In Britain 20 years ago you'd have written No 1, No 2 although this format is being replaced by the American one. – PhillipW Jul 30 '14 at 17:35
  • @PhillipW, but the question is in the context of the number pad on the phone. Do you still call the "#" on the phone the "number key" or "number sign"? – Evil Closet Monkey Jul 30 '14 at 17:47
  • Using "sharp" would likely be foreign to anyone with little/no musical background. – Evil Closet Monkey Jul 30 '14 at 17:47
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    No, call it Hash. (or the "noughts and crosses" key if dealing with anyone over 55 - as it looks like a grid for this playground game) – PhillipW Jul 30 '14 at 17:48
  • @PhillipW, today I learned what 55+ Britons call Tic-Tac-Toe. :) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noughts_and_crosses – Evil Closet Monkey Jul 30 '14 at 17:54
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If this is targeted at a younger audience, they will immediately know what button you are talking about if you say "hashtag" I know that sounds silly, but it will effectively communicate the point. In America, that key is typically referred to as "the pound key".

Here in America in most forms of mainstream media you are bombarded with a constant stream of hashtags, Twitter is referred to extensively and regularly in American news. Even the President's wife posted a picture of herself holding up a Twitter hashtag.

http://www.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/hashtag-wars-whos-behind-nigeria-bringbackourgirls-movement-n100771

Here is an article complaining about the phenomenon I am talking about.

http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2014/07/29/howmanyistoomany-tallying-up-one-days-worth-of-hashtags/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+wsj%2Fbiztech%2Ffeed+(WSJ.com%3A+Business+Technology)

  • Are you sure younger audiences will know what it means? The words 'hash' and 'hashtag' are not the same, there's no guarantee people will associated the # part of a hashtag with being called a 'hash'. – JonW Jul 30 '14 at 15:41
  • I was actually saying to refer to the "#" symbol as "hashtag". Like "press the hashtag key". That is why I said I know it sounds silly. Again, only if this is for younger audiences. – ChristianCuevas Jul 30 '14 at 15:43
  • Fair point, I think I misread your answer. It'll still be interesting to do a survey or something to see if Twitter and the like have made that symbol more recognised. – JonW Jul 30 '14 at 15:47
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    I don't know where you are from, but here in America in most forms of mainstream media you are bombarded with a constant stream of hashtags, Twitter is referred to extensively and regularly in American news. Even the President's wife posted a picture of herself holding up a Twitter hashtag.nbcnews.com/tech/social-media/… – ChristianCuevas Jul 30 '14 at 15:53
  • You should add that into your actual answer as it's some useful supporting evidence of the takeup of the term. The Edit option should allow you to do this. – JonW Jul 30 '14 at 15:59
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The "Proper" Usage

Per the ITU, the # symbol should be referred to as square in the context of telephony.

On the 4 × 3 array, the symbol on the button which is immediately to the right of the button 0 (in the 6 × 2 array, the corresponding button is located below the button 0) and which, according to UIT-T Q.23, is used to transmit the frequency pair 941 Hz and 1477 Hz, should conform in shape to the specifications given in Figure 3 or 4....

The symbol may be referred to as the square or the most commonly used equivalent term in other languages.

However, the ITU also mentions this in a footnote:

In some countries an alternative term (e.g. "hash", "pound" or "number sign") may be necessary for this purpose, particularly where the form in Figure 4 is commonly used, in which case it is useful to select and to recommend a preferred term for consistent use nationally.

Unless you decide to "live by the books," it may not be the best idea to be calling it square, this may confuse people... a lot.

The American Usage

Typically in the United States, the # symbol is typically referred to pound in the context of telephony, and sometimes referred to as hash. The practices of this date back to the early 1900s when "lbs" was often abbreviated # in the trade of goods. For example, 5 pounds could be abbreviated as 5#. This practice has long been abolished, and in the previous example, it could be written as 5 lbs. (2.27 kg) now.

Many younger audiences are more familiar with the term hash rather than pound in the United States. This became popular with younger people in the United States because of the frequent usage of hashtags in social networks.

Many older people from the United States are more familiar with pound rather than hash. This is because hash was not frequently used until recently in the United States.

Unless you are catering to a specific audience, it is generally acceptable to say it like in the example below:

...then press the hash, or pound, key.

The British/International English Usage

Starting in the 1960s with the introduction of Touch-Tone™ phones, BT tried to standardise the term gate for the # symbol. However, that practice did not last. Typically in English speaking countries outside of the United States, the term hash is used when catering to all audiences now.

Outside of the English language

Outside of the English language, it seems each locale has their own specific term for such a symbol. When catering to an audience who may be speaking English as their non-native language, it is generally best to just say hash, as that is the term most will be able to understand.

Usage Examples

What follows is a recording of the text below in both Australian, American, and British dialects.

That agent is already on. Please enter your agent number followed by the # key.

American Dialect: https://soundcloud.com/jack-rosenthal/agent-already-on-american

Australian Dialect: https://soundcloud.com/jack-rosenthal/agent-already-on-australian

British Dialect: https://soundcloud.com/jack-rosenthal/agent-already-on-british

It should be noted that even though this British example uses pound, the British use hash more frequently.

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I believe that for phones it is usually called the pound sign in English.

In Dutch it is called: "hekje" (the little fence).

http://blog.dictionary.com/octothorpe/ also shows some interesting background on it's usage and history.

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    I am English, and if someone asked me what the Pound sign was I'd say it was £. – JonW Jul 30 '14 at 8:04
  • @JonW Dutch people always say "English" when they really mean "English speaker". I get "Oh, you're English" over here all the time, and have given up correcting them on my nationality. ;) – Franchesca Jul 30 '14 at 8:12
  • It is sometimes known as a pound sign in the US, but I'm not sure the US truly speak English. :P – Franchesca Jul 30 '14 at 8:13
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    Perhaps i have spent too much of my life on conference calls, but even as a Brit i know when i hear Pound Sign it is referring to the Hash symbol, although it is an Americanism. With the high adoption of Hashtags throughout social media, is the term 'Hash' or 'Hashtag' really to be considered 'technical' any more? (to an English speaking user that is) – OpenTage Jul 30 '14 at 8:35
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    @OpenTage: In that case the answer is probably 'know your audience'. Some people will be happy with 'Pound', some people will say "There is no £ sign on my phone". – JonW Jul 30 '14 at 8:43
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Section 3.2.2 of the ITU standard "E.161 : Arrangement of digits, letters and symbols on telephones and other devices that can be used for gaining access to a telephone network" says...

The symbol may be referred to as the square or the most commonly used equivalent term in other languages.

Given the global rise of Twitter since this document was last updated (and terms like Hashtag becoming common parlance) most people would be more likely to recognise Hash than Square which is recommended (or Pound as commonly used in North America).

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TL;DR

Call it "pound" or "hash".

What's "HASH"?

The name 'hash' sounds quite technical. While every programmer do (should) understand what is 'hash', I'm not sure if I should expect it from the non-programmer.

During my stint as a software developer (before I started to care about the people who actually had to use the stuff I wrote) I never referred to the '#' character as "hash", nor did I ever hear it referred to it as such in school or industry. It was not until Twitter that I heard it referenced as "hash" on a significant scale.

When I speak to software developers today I still never call it "hash" in the context of programming.

My point: "hash" is not technical, at all.

Location and Age Matter

I have always called this symbol the "pound sign", or the "number sign".

This is a symbol that suffers a great deal from both chronological and geographical prejudice. As other answers and comments have pointed out, your geographic location has a great deal to do with how to refer to this character. In my case, my perspective is from the United States.

Chronologically you will likely find differences too. I am just old enough to remember when rotary phones were just slightly more common than touch tone phones. In the United States the '#' character has most frequently been referred to as the "pound key". It is still predominately called this, as I still dial into conference calls (to give just one example) and am prompted each time to "enter your pin, followed by the pound sign".

Younger individuals will most likely more immediately identify the symbol as "hash". Given the proliferation of social media the terms used (i.e., "hash") in those medias are becoming more prevalent.

Looking at Wikipedia's entry on the "Number Sign" begins as follows:

Number sign is a name for the symbol #, which is used for a variety of purposes, including (mainly in the United States) the designation of a number (for example, "#1" stands for "number one"). In recent years, it has been used for "hashtagging" on social media websites.

The term number sign is most commonly used when the symbol is used before a number. In the United States the term pound sign is catching on; the telephone key is called the "pound key".1 Outside of North America the symbol is called hash and the corresponding telephone key is called the "hash key" (and the term "pound sign" usually describes the British currency symbol "£").

Notice that "hash" is called out as being more common outside the United States, and the symbol has only more recently been associated with "hash" in the United States since social media.

The Wikipedia entry continues with several "Origin and usage and naming conventions..." sections for the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland, and other names in English.

There is also a section on how the sign is used in programming. Notice that nowhere in that section does the word "hash" appear.

Who are your users?

If you look at the number of Internet users by country you'll notice that the United States is a primary market. Add up the European countries and you will get close to an equal market share, but are all those European markets your targets? Even if you have no specific target, you will want to capture the markets that frequent your site the most.

What are some other examples?

Right here at StackExchange, the help section on headers refers to it as a "hash".

Dictionary.com has an article on this topic: What should you call the #?.

This seemed applicable: enter image description here

What do you call it?

Your question is specifically calling out a phone. Using "pound" will be widely recognized in the United States, and may be recognized outside the United States in some instances. However, "hash" is more commonly used outside of North America and the term is easily associated with the symbol by individuals, generally regardless of geography, familiar with social media.

Calling it the "hash key" will very likely capture the widest market.

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