Monday, November 9, 2015

Where It’s @

A recent New York Times article lamented the fact that Americans have no suitable name for the symbol we use every time we send an email or write a Twitter address: the @ sign. The official name is the commercial at, usually just called the at sign. Wikipedia claims that some people call it a strudel, but I’ve never heard that.

First used as a symbol on invoices, it meant “at a rate of,” as in the phrase “5 cases of Tanqueray gin @ £300 = £1,500.” Some form of the sign has been in use since the 16th century.

There is much speculation as to its origin.  Some say it’s just a cryptic form of “e.a.” (“each at”) with the “e” wrapped around the “a.” Others suggest it was a medieval monk’s abbreviation of the Latin ad (“at, toward, by, about”) used before a number. Or it might have been a corrupted form the old lower case “a,” which was written ∂; or the Greek ανά, meaning “at the rate of”; or the Norman French à, which means “at.”

However it came into being, our name for it is lame. There have been some attempts to come up with new terms for it—arobase (a French word), arroba (Spanish), asperand, ampersat, and the simple snake. But none of these have caught on.

Most Europeans and Asians have much more colorful nomenclatures.The Danish term translates as “elephant’s trunk.” The Dutch and the Poles think it’s more of a “monkey’s tail,” whereas the Czechs give it a culinary reference as a “rollmop.” Other terms are the Greek “duckling,” Italian “snail,” Russian “dog,” Taiwanese “mouse,” German “spider monkey,” Kazakh “moon’s ear,” Norwegian “curly alpha,” Bosnian “crazy A,” and the straightforward Bulgarian “badly written letter.”

Since the Bard of Buffalo Bayou never knows exactly where he’s @, he doesn’t care what you call it.

            There was an old plutocr@
            Who never knew where he was @,
                        He said, “What do I care
                        If I’m here or I’m there?”
            So he stayed right there where he s@.

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