Shady characters (Part 2)

Morning all. Here’s Rambler5319’s post for this week, a follow up from last Wednesday. Enjoy it!


If you didn’t catch last week’s Shady Characters you might want to have a quick read so you know where the title comes from. (Check out Shady Characters 8.1.14).

For this week we’re back delving into Keith Houston’s brilliant book.  We’re going to look at a character you’re probably all familiar with but also don’t know that much about: it’s the @ sign or symbol.

I was originally taught this in relation to costs or weights when doing “sums” at school. You might have a list like this:

1 bag of nails @ £5.20 = £5.20

2 hammers @ £7.00 = £14.00

12 screws @ £0.10 = £1.20

Total £20.40

Or it might be groceries or whatever. It was just a way of telling you to multiply the number of items by the cost per item.

Even if you’ve learnt a foreign language at school you probably didn’t learn what that language calls the @ sign. I know I didn’t. A survey was done about 16 years ago to see what different countries call it. Well here are just a few examples with translations of what those countries call this now ubiquitous symbol:

In Danish/Swedish it’s called snabel-a (means “elephant’s trunk” in English).

In Dutch it is called apestaart (means “monkey’s tail” in English)

In German it is called klammeraffe (means “spider monkey” in English)

In Herbrew it is called strudel (means “roll-shaped bun in English. Now you know where Apple Strudel comes from if you’ve ever had it. Maybe that could be written Apple@ or maybe not as a certain computer manufacturer might object! Think actually there should have been an “interrobang” here – see last week’s post.)

In Norwegian it is called grisebale (means “pig’s tail” in English)

Any readers from other countries? Let’s know what @ is called where you live? 

I think any of these are acceptable; they’re certainly more colourful than our somewhat mundane rendition. In English we simply call it the “at sign”. If you’ve got an email address you’ve got an “at sign” straight after your name or whatever you’ve called yourself for communication purposes along with whoever is allowing you to use their network; you might be a company, individual or group of individuals but you’ll have an @ in there somewhere. Ever wonder where it came from? Why are you, for example,, or or me@whatever? Why can’t you just be you? Of course the @ symbol is absolutely necessary because it performs a vital role in the communication story. But what is that role and why is it @ and not something else?

Ok well I won’t give you the whole story as it’s quite long and goes back hundreds of years (read KH’s book for that): the symbol appears in a letter from the year 1536 but it didn’t mean “at” in that instance. We’ll bypass the explanation for why there’s a curly bit that goes round the “a”; that seems to have a number of suggested origins. Instead we’ll jump straight in, with the fully-formed symbol, as it appeared in approximately the mid-Victorian era.  The very first typewriter was being developed in Milwaukee and it actually didn’t have the @ symbol on it. @ appeared about 20 years later (1889) on a key on machine made by a competing company. At this time, though, it didn’t have a recognised place on the keyboard and was put with various letters or another character which, like today, also needed the press of a shift key to get the symbol onto the paper; occasionally it had its own key.

Now wind the clock forward again to 1969-71 when the idea of linking computers over a wide area across the USA was being developed. A guy working on writing programmes for use in that project recognised the potential for using it to exchange messages although that was not his primary remit. Anyway it seems that in thinking about how to address messages he needed a character to tell the computers how to recognise what was to be done with a message that “A” wanted to send to “B”. From what I can see it was a kind of “let’s-see-what-we-could-use” approach and he just picked @; he could have picked something else BUT he didn’t and so we use the @ sign.

The part following the @ sign is the computer system you sort of “live on” in this internet world. You might live on system “google”, I might live on system “yahoo” or wherever; just like you might live at 15 Acacia Avenue in London, you now also have an alternative address in a “place” that doesn’t actually exist – the internet. Yes you’re on someone’s computer but the internet is not there, it’s not an actual place, it’s simply a collection (network?) of computers holding vast amounts of information and talking to each other and to you and me. Those computers with the traffic between them and you and me is what we call the internet: part of “the internet” is in America, part is in England, Australia, Russia, Canada or wherever. It’s an indefinable amorphous entity made up of many parts -but it’s there.

But I suppose the unanswerable question often asked is “Where is it @?” (Haha)  

Or could it be used within expressions?:

Perhaps an item of men’s attire: top@, bowler@ or pork pie@. Or maybe just in words like @tack, @tempt, @tune, silver pl@ter etc. Or even places: L@takia (Syria),

Whatever happens it’s an interesting little character & it’s definitely here to stay.


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