A closer look at @

Talking about the “at” sign is much more interesting if you’re not speaking English.

The Wikipedia entry for @ lists names for it in over fifty other languages, many of which are colourful interpretations of its shape — and which, in true online style, often involve animal analogies.

Armenians call it ishnik, meaning a “puppy” (curled up on the floor, I assume). Chinese terms include xiao laoshu in Taiwan, meaning “little mouse” and — as pointed out in the comments to the right — quan ei on the mainland, meaning “circled A”. Danes, meanwhile, prefer snabela (an “elephant’s trunk A”).

Hungarians have the less savory kukac (“worm” or “maggot”), Italians the slightly more palatable chiocciola (“snail”), while — two personal favourites — Kazakhs see a айқұлақ (“moon’s ear”) and some Germans a klammeraffe(“spider monkey” — or, as more precisely pointed out in the comments to the right, “cling monkey”). If you’re Greek, as David Byrd adds in his comment, you say papaki, meaning “little duck.”

There’s interest outside the animal kingdom, too. Bosnians go for ludo a(“crazy letter A”), while in Slovak it is a zavináč (“pickled fish roll”) and in Turkish a güzel a (“beautiful A”). There’s even a special Morse Code signal for @ — the only new symbol added since the first world war — formed by running together the dots and dashes for the letters “A” and “C” as a single character: (·—·-·).

I’ve written briefly about the history of the @ symbol in email in my book Netymology, but for a definitive account there’s no better place than Keith Houston’s blog Shady Characters, which tells in wonderful detail the story of how in 1971 a 29-year-old year old computer engineer called Ray Tomlinson created a global emblem when he decided to make the obscure symbol “@” the fulcrum of his new email messaging system.

It was a good choice on Tomlinson’s part, being almost unused elsewhere in computer programming, as well as an intuitive fit for sending email to another person “at” a particular domain (email itself had existed before Tomlison’s invention, but only as a means of communication between different users logged into the same computer system).

Previously, @ had existed in English largely as an accounting symbol, indicating the price of goods: buying twenty loaves of bread at ten cents each might be written “20 loaves @ 10 ¢”.

It was also, however, a far more venerable symbol than Tomlinson probably realised. As Houston notes, an instance of @ meaning “at the rate of” is recorded as early as a letter sent in May 1536 by a Florentine merchant called Francesco Lapi, who used it to describe the price of wine.

There’s a clear link, here, between the modern Spanish and Portuguese word for both the @ sign and a unit of weight — arroba — and the container on which this unit of weight was based, the amphora, used by both the ancient Greeks and Romans to transport liquids (and wine in particular).

All of which brings us a long way from email, and indeed from pickled rolls and snails. For me, though, it adds a pleasant depth to the hastily tapped symbol on my keyboard: a little piece of the ancient Mediterranean lodged in modernity, and a supreme enabler of contemporary exchange.