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The History of the @ Sign

In 1972, Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message, now known as e-mail, using the @ symbol to indicate the location or institution of the e-mail recipient. Tomlinson, using a Model 33 Teletype device, understood that he needed to use a symbol that would not appear in anyone's name so that there was no confusion. The logical choice for Tomlinson was the "at sign," both because it was unlikely to appear in anyone's name and also because it represented the word "at," as in a particular user is sitting @ this specific computer.

However, before the symbol became a standard key on typewriter keyboards in the 1880s and a standard on QWERTY keyboards in the 1940s, the @ sign had a long if somewhat sketchy history of use throughout the world. Linguists are divided as to when the symbol first appeared. Some argue that the symbol dates back to the 6th or 7th centuries when Latin scribes adapted the symbol from the Latin word ad, meaning at, to or toward. The scribes, in an attempt to simplify the amount of pen strokes they were using, created the ligature (combination of two or more letters) by exaggerating the upstroke of the letter "d" and curving it to the left over the "a."

Other linguists will argue that the @ sign is a more recent development, appearing sometime in the 18th century as a symbol used in commerce to indicate price per unit, as in 2 chickens @ 10 pence. While these theories are largely speculative, in 2000 Giorgio Stabile, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University in Italy, discovered some original 14th-century documents clearly marked with the @ sign to indicate a measure of quantity - the amphora, meaning jar. The amphora was a standard-sized terra cotta vessel used to carry wine and grain among merchants, and, according to Stabile, the use of the @ symbol ( the upper-case "A" embellished in the typical Florentine script) in trade led to its contemporary meaning of "at the price of."

While in the English language, @ is referred to as the "at sign," other countries have different names for the symbol that is now so commonly used in e-mail transmissions throughout the world. Many of these countries associate the symbol with either food or animal names.

  • Afrikaans - In South Africa, it is called aapstert, meaning "monkey's tail"
  • Arabic - The @ symbol does not appear on Arabic keyboards, only keyboards in both Arabic and English. The Arabic word for @ is fi, the Arabic translation of at
  • Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian - In these countries, it is referred to as the "Crazy I"
  • Cantonese - In Hong Kong it is generally referred to as "the at sign," just as in England and America
  • Catalan - In Catalonia, it is called arrova, a unit of weight
  • Czech - In the Czech Republic, it is called zavinac, meaning "rollmop," or "pickled herring"
  • Danish - It is called alfa-tegn, meaning "alpha-sign" or snabel-a, meaning "elephant's trunk" or grisehale, meaning "pig's tail"
  • Dutch - Since English is prominent in the Netherlands, the English "at" is commonly used. However, the Dutch also call it apestaart, meaning monkey's tail," apestaartje, meaning "little monkey's tail" or slingeraap, meaning "swinging monkey"
  • French - In France, it is called arobase the name of the symbol. It is also referred to as un a commercial, meaning "business a", a enroule, meaning "coiled a", and sometimes escargot, meaning "snail" or petit escargot, meaning "little snail"
  • German - In Germany, it is called Affenschwanz, meaning "monkey's tail" or Klammeraffe, meaning "hanging monkey"
  • Greek - In Greece, it is called papaki, meaning "little duck"
  • Hebrew - It is shablul or shablool, meaning "snail" or a shtrudl, meaning "strudel"
  • Hungarian - In Hungary, it is called a kukac, meaning "worm" or "maggot"
  • Italian - In Italy it is called chiocciola, meaning "snail" and a commerciale, meaning "business a"
  • Japanese - In Japan, it is called atto maaku, meaning "at mark"
  • Mandarin Chinese - In Taiwan it is called xiao lao-shu, meaning "little mouse," lao shu-hao, meaning "mouse sign," at-hao, meaning "at sign" or lao shu-hao, meaning "mouse sign"
  • Norwegian - In Norway, it is called either grisehale, meaning "pig's tail" or kro/llalfa, meaning "curly alpha." In academia, the English term "at" is widely used
  • Polish - In Poland, it is called malpa, meaning "monkey." It is also called kotek, meaning "little cat" and ucho s'wini, meaning "pig's ear"
  • Portuguese - In Portugal it is called arroba, a unit of weight
  • Romanian - In Romania, it is called la, a direct translation of English "at"
  • Russian - Russians officially call it a kommercheskoe, meaning "commercial a", but it is usually called sobachka, meaning "little dog"
  • Spanish -- Like in Portugal, in Spain it is called arroba, a unit of weight
  • Swedish - The official term in Sweden is snabel-a, meaning "trunk-a," or "a with an elephant's trunk"
  • Thai - There is no official word for it in Thai, but it is often called ai tua yiukyiu, meaning "the wiggling worm-like character"
  • Turkish - In Turkey, most e-mailers call it kulak, meaning "ear"

For more information, also see:
@ -- A Sign of the Times
From Whence Comes The At Sign @ ?

Where It's At: Names for a Common Symbol







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