Hi, I'm Nicholas Johnson!

software engineer / trainer / AI enthusiast

Hashes and Symbols

Hashes are a big deal in Ruby. We use them a lot, particularly when passing bits of data around. Symbols are tiny lightweight Ruby placeholder objects. They are often used in conjunction with hashes. In this section we will look at hashes, symbols, and some of their common uses.

Symbols are not magic runes

Symbols often seem like magic runes to Ruby newcomers. In fact they’re just little objects that have some special features and syntax surrounding them to make them a little easier to use and a little lighter on the computers memory.

Symbol syntax

Symbols are defined using the colon operator or the to_sym method:

  "My Price".to_sym

Features of Symbols

  • Symbols are tiny little objects
  • Symbols don’t have a value, they are placeholders, not variables.
  • There can only ever be one symbol with a particular name, this is managed by Ruby. Because of this they are not processor or memory intensive.
  • Symbols can potentially represent a memory leak if you create a lot of them.

There can only be one

A symbol will only exist once in memory, no matter how many times it is used. If for example, you create two symbols in different places both called :name for example, only one object would be created. This object would persist for as long as the Ruby interpreter was running.

Uses of Symbols

Symbols are most commonly used as placeholders in Hashes. We have used symbols already in Rails, for example the Rails params hash associates any the values of any parameters passed in by the user (from a form or in the url) with a symbol representing the name of that value.


Hashes are objects that associate lists of arbitrary objects with each other. For example:

  animals = Hash.new
  animals[:tall] = "giraffe"
  animals[:minute] = "kitten"
  puts animals.inspect

Hash Assignment Shorthand

  animals = {:tall => "giraffe", :minute => "kitten"}
  puts animals[: minute]
  => kitten

Setting Default Values in a Hash

A hash will return nil if it can’t find any matching keys. You can set a default value that a hash will return in this instance should you so desire.

  animals = Hash.new("monkey")
  puts animals[:funny]
  => "monkey"

You can also set this value using the Hash.default method

  animals.default = "star mole"
  puts animals[:odd]=> star mole

Any Objects can be used as a key

Any Object can be used as a key. Here we use the number 45 as a key, and store the root directory of the local file system as a value:

  animals[45] = Dir.new '/'
  puts animals.inspect # {45 => #<Dir:0x284a394>

Exercise - Hashes and Symbols

Create a hash to hold a list of feelings and foods. It should look like something like this, only longer:

  food_hash = {
    :happy => "ice cream",
    :pensive => "witchetty grub"

Write a function that allows a user to type in a feeling and have it return the corresponding food (Tip: use to_sym to convert the user’s input into a symbol)

Functions that receive a Hash

A function can receive a hash of values. This is tremendously useful, and we do this all the time.

  def get_greeting_for(args={})
    name = args[:name] || "anonymous"
    return "hello #\{name}"

  puts get_greeting_for :name => "Fat Tony"
  => "hello Fat Tony"

  puts get_greeting_for
  => "hello anonymous"

Here our function receives a parameter we’ve called args. The default value of the args parameter is an empty hash. Any key value pairs we pass will go into args, and can be pulled out.

On the second line we do this:

  name = args[:name] || "anonymous"

Here we set the value of name to be either the value stored in args under the :name key, or if this evaluates to nil (and therefore false) we set it to anonymous. This is tremendously useful, since we can create functions that accept multiple arguments, in any order, with any defaults that make sense.

You should get used to writing configurable, extensible methods that receive a hash. This is a real rubyism.

Exercise - receive a hash

Extend your food finder function so it can receive a hash. You should be able to call it like this:

  food mood: :pensive

Write RSpec

Write RSpec to verify it does in fact work.


  • Symbols are singleton strings. They are very lightweight, and can be used anywhere you need a unique object, such as in a hash.
  • Hashes are dictionary objects, sometimes called hash tables. They associate keys with values.
  • You can use any object as a key, and store any object as a value.
  • We commonly use symbols as keys in hashes
  • A special syntax exists which lets us pass a hash to a function.

Hard exercise - A substitution cypher

A substitution cypher is one in which each letter is changed for another, so ‘a’ might map to ‘z’ and ‘b’ might map to ‘y’.

Here we will create a substitution cypher in a very few words.

We can use zip to combine two arrays

  [1,2,3].zip [4,5,6]
    => [[1,4],[2,5],[3,6]]

we can compose an array of characters from a range like this:


We can create a Hash from arrays of arrays, like so:

    => {1 => 4, 2 => 5, 3 => 6}

You can rotate an array using rotate, like this

  [1,2,3].rotate 1
    => [2,3,1]

Use these techniques to create a substitution cypher hash, something like this:

  {'a' => 'b', 'b' => 'c', c => 'd' ...}
  1. Now write a function that can accept a string.
  2. Use split to break the string into an array.
  3. Use map with a block to rewrite each element, so a becomes z, etc…
  4. Now use join to turn the array back into a string.

If you have get everything right you should be able to pass the string back though, and it will go back to how it was.

For bonus points, write the function body in two lines of code.

Exercise - Receiving a hash

Modify your substitution cypher so it can receive a hash of values.

I want to be able to call it like this

  substitution_cypher "Hello Ruby", rotate: 3