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Where it’s at

The @ symbol has been a central part of the Internet and its forerunners ever since it was chosen to be a separator in e-mail addresses by Ray Tomlinson in 1972. From puzzled comments which surface from time to time in various newsgroups, it appears the biggest problem for many Net users is deciding what to call it. This is perhaps unsurprising, as outside the narrow limits of bookkeeping, invoicing and related areas few people use it regularly. Even fewer ever have to find a name for it, so it’s noted mentally as something like “that letter a with the curly line round it”.

Its use in business actually goes back to late medieval times. An Italian academic, Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University, claimed recently to have found evidence of its use in the records of Florentine merchants nearly 500 years ago. At that time, it was either a unit of weight or of volume, representing one amphora, a measure that was based on the capacity of the standard terracotta jars that were then employed to transport grain and liquid about the Mediterranean (the capacity of an amphora was one thirtieth of a barrel). The sign was a handwritten letter A (for amphora), embellished in the typical Florentine script.

Previously, the symbol had been thought to be a contraction for the Latin word ad, meaning “to, toward, at”; it was thought that in cursive writing the upright stroke of the d had curved over to the left and extended around the a so that eventually the lower part fused with the a to form one symbol.

Whatever its source, in northern Europe the symbol seems to have soon adopted its modern sense of “at the price of”. It was used in accounts or invoices to give the unit price of something (“3 yds of lace for my lady @ 1/4d a yard”).

Because business employed it, it was put on typewriter keyboards from about 1880 onwards, though it is very noticeable that the designers of several of the early machines didn’t think it important enough to include it (neither the Sholes keyboard of 1873 nor the early Caligraph one had it, giving preference to the ampersand instead). Later it became part of the standard keyboard set and it was carried over to the standard computer character sets of EBCDIC and ASCII in the sixties. From there, and especially because of its ubiquity in the Internet, it has spread out across the networked world, perforce even into language groups such as Arabic, Tamil or Japanese which do not use the Latin alphabet.

A discussion on the LINGUIST discussion list about names for @ in various languages produced an enormous response, from which most of the facts which follow are drawn. Some have just transliterated the English name “commercial at” or “at” into the local language. What is interesting is that nearly all the languages cited have developed colloquial names for it which have food or animal references.

In German, it is frequently called Klammeraffe, “spider monkey” (you can imagine the monkey’s tail), though this word also has a figurative sense very similar to that of the English “leech” (“He grips like a leech”). Danish has grisehale, “pig’s tail”, but more often calls it snabel a, “a (with an) elephant’s trunk”, as does Swedish, where it is the name recommended by the Swedish Language Board. Dutch has apestaart or apestaartje, “(little) monkey’s tail” (the “je” is a diminutive); this turns up in Friesian as apesturtsje and in Finnish in the form apinanhanta. Finnish also has kissanhäntä, “cat’s tail” and, most wonderfully, miukumauku, “the miaow sign”. In Hungarian it is kukac, “worm; maggot”, in Russian “little dog”, in Serbian majmun, “monkey”, with a similar term in Bulgarian. Both Spanish and Portuguese have arroba, which derives from a unit of weight or volume that Professor Stabile suggests is closely related to that of the amphora — 25lb weight (just over 11kg) or six Imperial gallons (nearly 23 litres). In Thai, the name translates as “the wiggling worm-like character”. Czechs often call it zavináč which is a rolled-up herring or rollmop; the most-used Hebrew term is strudel, from the famous Viennese rolled-up apple sweet. Another common Swedish name is kanelbulle, “cinnamon bun”, which is rolled up in a similar way.

The most curious usage, because it seems to have spread furthest from its origins, whatever they are, is snail. The French have called it escargot for a long time (though more formal terms are arobase or a commercial), but the term is also common in Italian (chiocciola), and has recently appeared in Hebrew (shablul), Korean (dalphaengi) and Esperanto (heliko).

In English the name of the sign seems to be most commonly given as at or, more fully, commercial at, which is the official name given to it in the international standard character sets. Other names include whirlpool (from its use in the joke computer language INTERCAL) and fetch (from FORTH), but these are much less common. A couple of the international names have come over into English: snail is fairly frequently used; more surprisingly, so is snabel from Danish.

Even so, as far as English is concerned at is likely to remain the standard name for the symbol. But there is plenty of evidence that the sign itself has moved out from the Internet to printed publications. For a while it seemed likely to become a standard signal for the Internet, though the popularity of e- compounds seems to have set that trend back somewhat.

Quite a history for a modest little symbol ...

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Page created 24 Aug 1996; Last updated 12 Jan 2002