Pull up a comma and pause, weary reader. Refresh yourself here at the familiar sign of the ‘at’. This is very much where it’s @.
The early history of @ is muddled but predominantly mercantile in use. However, the earliest recorded @ yet found is in a Bulgarian translation of a Byzantine chronicle that dates to the mid-14th century. It appears as a low-budget illuminated character: the ‘a’ in ‘amin’, for which read ‘amen’. Shown below is that page from the 1345 translation of the 12th Century Manasses Chronicle.
@min didn’t catch on.
The next documentary evidence is from 1448. It shows @ in relation to a purchase of wheat from Castile by a merchant from the Kingdom of Aragon (both now in modern Spain).
Which was all very well, but international traders had to deal with this one symbol representing similar (but not exactly so) measurements of weight in Portuguese and Spanish cultures, whilst allowing for its use by Italian merchants as a measurement of volume. The example below is from a Florentine merchant writing in 1536 and is concerned with the import of wine from Peru to Spain.
Next, evolving with commerce, came the familiar English language abbreviation for ‘at the rate of’ or ‘per’. And, before you know it, early modern technology had happened and @ spread far and wide with the development and export of QWERTY typewriters which included as standard an @ key – even to countries that weren’t gifted with the benefit of the right language.
Ah, hindsight: it is easy to observe that, in a pre-email, ante-World Wide Web world, @, that peculiar and unnecessary decoration, was disdained or overlooked by typists worldwide. There’s one on the American machine below.
Right now @ is huge. It is so much more than a commercial symbol, or even an accident of QWERTY. It is more than mere punctuation; more than abbreviation, too.
Just look at it:-
A lower-case ‘a’ circled by its own tail. That’s a lot of penmanship for day-to-day business transactions. Even now, in our digitally advantaged times, it’s often more than a single flick of a single key to bring @ to the page or screen. Yet this squiggle is so ever-present that it could easily become the symbol that represents our times in future histories. Or, perhaps, it can already be viewed as an elegantly satirical metaphor for today’s endeavours, as we chase around and around until we disappear up our own ‘a’. Truly, our symbolic sign o’ the times.
Brief digression #1 – containing two significant examples of symbol use (but not @) in pop culture: Sign o’ the Times is an influential 1987 song, album and concert movie by the artist Prince, originally known as Prince Rogers Nelson (1958-2016). The title was styled by the artist as Sign ☮ the Times. In 1993 Prince became ‘the Artist Formerly Known as Prince’ when he changed his public persona to an unpronounceable icon that came to be known as the ‘Love Symbol’.
In 2000 ‘TAFKAP’ changed back to ‘Prince’.Digression over.
Brief digression #2 – ☮ is a combination of the semaphore signals for N and D, designed in 1958 for the UK-based Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND); adopted internationally as a ‘peace symbol’.
The symbol @ is a specifier of value: so many somethings @ so much each. It may be defined or interpreted as ‘at the rate of’, ‘per’ or, simply, ‘at’. Commercial requirement was its raison d’être, and still stands as a weighty reason for usage. However, since the dawning of the age of the email @ has also been an indicator of identification. Nowadays, th@’s the most familiar use worldwide, as that part of an email address that links the addressee to the domain. And, as an upshot, also in the Twittersphere where @ introduces a tweeter’s ID.
As a result of its etymological travels @ has developed many identities.
Around the world @ is now named, as often as not, for its appearance or the visual symbolism it conjures up rather than its textual purpose. If, in your English language or QUERTY innocence, you didn’t know what @ was, how would you know what to call it? As a result we have a fanciful and multilingual gallery of flora, fauna and foodstuffs. A kind of a virtual typo-geography of our digital world.
What follows comes with a warning: the lexicon of @ translations below has been sourced, in part, from a probably quite accurate range of Internet locations. This is by no means a complete list.
- In Austria and Germany you can find @ called a ‘spider monkey’.
- Germans sometimes also use ‘tail of the monkey’, as do denizens of Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Romania.
- In South Africa, Afrikaans speakers may refer to a ‘monkey’s tail’.
- Extending the visual metaphor, Germany also has a ‘hanging-’ or ‘clinging-monkey’.
- In Flanders (in the Dutch-speaking north of Belgium) and the Netherlands @ sometimes specifies the ‘tail of a small monkey’.
- The Netherlands sometimes goes further: ‘a little monkey’s testicle’.
- Bulgaria mixes the figurative with prosaic whimsy for ‘monkey ‘a’’ and stands with Slovenia in the use of a ‘small monkey’. But Slovenia also sees a ‘monkey’s tail’.
- Serbians have a ‘monkey’, ‘a monkey tail’ and ‘monkeyish ‘a’’.
- Poland favours ‘a monkey’.
- Russia goes with ‘the monkey’.
- Croatia calls @ ‘manki’, an accented echoing of a standard English ‘monkey’.
- Finland draws on the image of a curled up cat, which leads naturally to the alternatives ‘miaow’ and ‘miaow-miaow’.
- Poland has a ‘little cat’.
- Meanwhile, back in Finland, you can find @ as a ‘kitten’s tail’ or a ‘cat’s tail’
- Sweden brings us a ‘cat’s foot’ as well as a ‘cat’s tail’.
- Finland, again, sees some use of ‘mouse’s tail’.
- Mandarin-speakers in Taiwan use a whole ‘mouse’ or a ‘little mouse’
- In Russia it’s a ‘dog’, ‘little dog’ or ‘puppy’.
- Kazakhstan has a ‘dog’s face’.
- Denmark and Norway have a ‘sow’s tail’ and a less gender-specific ‘pig’s tail’.
- Poland has a ‘pig’s ear’.
- In Turkey there is an ‘ear’.
- In Kazakhstan it is specified as a ‘moon’s ear’.
- Sweden offers an ‘elephant’s ear’.
- In both Denmark and Sweden @ is ‘elephant’s trunk ‘a’’.
- In Greece and Cyprus it’s a ‘little duck’ or ‘duckling’.
- In Hungary there’s a ‘maggot’, ‘worm’ or ‘little worm’.
- In the Thai language it is the ‘wriggling worm-like creature”.
- In Britain, Italy, Israel and France they have been known to call @ a snail.
- The Koreans do so too – but they have a sea snail in mind.
- Italians and French sometimes specify a ‘small snail’.
- The Czech Republic and Slovakia have a ‘pickled herring roll’, which further translates as a ‘rollmop’.
- Hebrew knows @ as a ‘strudel’. (If you key @ on an appropriately branded device the Apple strudel is almost irresistible!)
- In Sweden @ is sometimes named ‘kanelbulle’, inspired by a cinnamon bun of spiral shape (pictured above), and ‘kringla’, after ‘kringle’, a Scandinavian form of pretzel (below).
- In Romania it is a ‘round ‘a’’.
- In Bosnia the ‘a’ theme develops: @ is a ‘crazy a’’.
- A ‘coiled ‘a’’ has been reported in France.
- Norway has a ‘curled ‘a’’ and ‘curly alpha’.
- The Netherlands also offers a ‘curly ‘a’’ and a ‘little swing ‘a’’.
- Bulgaria adds the кльомба or ‘klyomba’ which, apparently (although it may be too good to be true), means ‘badly drawn letter’.
In the English-speaking and American English corners of the Internet @ has also been identified as:
- an ‘arabesque’
- a ‘cabbage’
- a ‘curl’
- a ‘whorl’
- a ‘scroll ‘a’’
- a ‘twiddle’
- a ‘twist’ and an ‘‘a’-twist’
- a ‘cyclone’
- a ‘vortex’ a ‘whirlpool’
- an ‘asperand’
- an ‘ampersat’
- an ‘each’
While on my Internet peregrinations I visited http://www.theguardian.com where I saw a jokey suggestion (from Leslie Nicholass in Colchester) that really rather took my fancy. @, it is suggested, should be called a ‘titfer’ from the Cockney rhyming slang titfer tat (tit for tat), ’at. Marvellous.
French, Spanish and Portuguese speakers share an earlier knowledge of @. To them it is a symbol of mercantile measurement, derived from an Arabic word for a quarter. From this history come their related names for @ when used as a symbol for ‘at the rate of’ but these are now now also used in relation to emails.
- In France it is known as ‘arobase’ or ‘arobas’.
- In Portugal (hence Brazil) it is ‘arroba’.
- It is known as ‘arroba’ in Spain, excepting Catalan where it is ‘arova’.
- Italy, which travelled by a different route, has the ‘amphora’.
The earliest record of @ used in commerce is Italian. It concerns the import of wine, presumably purveyed in pretty standard amphorae. The Italian @ was originally, and still serves as a measurement unit of weight and volume.
In English and American English commercial use the primary name for the symbol is ‘at’. But not even that ‘at’ is certain. In the eccentric, well, differently concentric circles of commerce it is also referred to as the ‘at sign’, ‘commercial at’, ‘commercial at sign’, ‘commercial symbol’ and ‘mercantile symbol’. And, for the more IT-savvy, ‘atmark”. Whether ‘at’ is considered to be an abbreviated interpretation of ‘at (any rate’)/‘per each’ or, given the ubiquity of email, a simple substitution on the pattern of me-at-domain.name (that is email@example.com) is impossible to know. Probably both. And, equally probable, it no longer matters.
Incidentally, the ‘at’ for @, as well as being borrowed by many foreign tongues in many of the countries named above, can be heard in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Malta. In Indonesia ‘at’ is pronounced ‘uh’.
Our modern world has an American to thank for what is the predominant 21st century use of @. In 1971 a computer programmer called Ray Tomlinson (1941-2016) invented email (this explanation may be something of a simplification) and in so doing chose the convenient @ symbol to hold it all together. Here’s a nice pic of the man who changed your world.
It was no coincidence that the guys who invented Twitter in 2006 chose @ for their ‘call outs’. Google them.
@ is also quite handy for Short Message Service (SMS). In less words: texting. SMS, introduced in the 1990s, is based on a maximum limit of 160 characters per single text message. A vocabulary of text- (rather than user-)friendly abbreviations quickly evolved.
‘@TEOTD’ (at the end of the day) @ was generally substituted for ‘at’ thus saving at least one character from the total requirement.
You could send a text from your mobile phone to anywhere in the world ‘@ATOTDAN’ (at all times of the day and night) and, if it was a business phone, ‘@S1EX’ (at someone else’s expense) but you were ‘A@TR’ (always at the ready).
Some of the simpler coded phrases and abbreviations made themselves at home in the more social corners of the Internet (giving rise to fears that the English language itself could be imperiled by a failure to spell things out). We survived. And as the song goes, ‘Wherever I lay my @…’
Texting also gifted the world with a range of typographical shortcuts and contrivances called emoticons. So, while we are @ it how about a few variations on the smiley face?
And, just as contrived, here’s a small gallery of typographical art for you to enjoy:
In text-based communication, back in the day innit, the making and sharing of such typo-babble was a popular indulgence but the best days of the old-school emoticon have probably gone forever. We live in the age of the emoji now.
&! let’s not overlook the fact that @ is also a world class player when it comes to cartoon English. The @ in comic book speech bubbles and thought balloons is part of a character set that euphemises the finest cussing with a random selection of symbolic substitutions. Sometime around 1964 the American cartoonist Mort Walker came up with the name ‘grawlix’ for a styled set of profane &%@$#! typographical symbols in a %§??@€¡! non-specific combination. These are not to be confused with a superabundance of onomatopoeia that may SPL@TTT! SPLU-U-U-URGE! SPLNKKK! animate and decorate a page. Grawlixes abound in comic books, mainly hand-lettered and often employing shapes way beyond current punctuation. Walker coined ‘quimps’, ‘jarns’ and ‘nittles’ to cover the various other imaginative devices used to mask his ‘maledicta’. In 1980 he published the irreverent textbook that is the Lexicon of Comicana. For want of anything better (& I mean that in a good way…) the cartoon world took Walker’s jokey symbology seriously and, now, it’s the only place to look when you need to know the proper word for, say, lines that radiate from a cartoon character to indicate shock or surprise’. That’ll be ’emanata’. Then, in $@&!!@$? 2006, a well-known American #&@@@!¡! lexicographer called Ben Zimmer, obviously too $%%^@??@ high on emoticons to look up ‘grawlix’, coined ‘obscenicon’. Well, I say graw-&%X@##*-lix! to @bgzimmer’s obsceni-@$%*%÷-con!
Nor, back at ‘at’, should we entirely forget the cultural influence of @ on popular music. The Britpop band menswe@r was formed in 1994. In terms of spelling, if nothing else, for a short spell there menswe@r were where it’s @.
Who knows what we will tip our ‘ats’ at next?! It’s been a long journey and one thing is for certain: @’ll be going nowhere in a hurry and going everywhere too.