the origin of the @ -- 7/28/23

Today's selection -- from Hyphens and Hashtags: The Stories Behind the Symbols on Our Keyboards by Claire Cock-Starkey. The origin of the @:

“Historians and lexicographers have searched for the origin of the @ in medieval manuscripts but no trace of it has been found. Despite this absence of evidence a number of theories as to its creation are put forward which link it to scribal hands. Some propose that the @ was first used by tired scribes who were fed up with the long hours of copying and so invented a number of abbreviations to lighten the load. These weary scribes supposedly shortened the Latin ad (meaning 'at' or 'towards') by curling the tail of the d to wrap it around the a, thereby saving themselves two whole pen strokes. Another hypothesis is that it derives from the French a (also meaning 'at') whereby the accent was incorporated into the glyph, but again this scribal shortcut doesn't really make sense for an already short word. 

“Based on physical evidence, the @ sign seems to have a mercantile origin. The first use of the sign has been ascribed to a letter by Florentine merchant Francesco Lapi in 1536. Lapi used the @ as a shortening of amphorae -- a unit of measurement for the wine, grains and spices that were shipped in the large clay jars of the same name. It went on to be used by other merchants to denote 'at the rate or, written out as '15 apples @ 15p each'. As a result, it became known in English as the 'commercial at'. This origin of the symbol makes sense in English, but when one reflects that in numerous other languages the name of the symbol relates to a variety of animals -- for example, in Dutch 'monkey's tail'; in Danish 'elephant's trunk'; in Norwegian 'pig's tail' -- the question arises as to whether we have truly got to the bottom of this strange symbol's creation. 

Bicameral @ letter as used in the Koalib language.

“The modern and now ubiquitous use of the @ in email addresses and Twitter handles has a more traceable history. In 1971 computer scientist Ray Tomlinson was working for BBN Technologies in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as they worked to create the forerunner of the Internet, the Arpanet. Tomlinson was pondering the difficult question of how to connect computer programmers to one another so that they might exchange messages. He decided that each person should have an address made up of their name joined to an as-yet-undecided symbol, followed by the name of their computer -- this would enable computers to read and understand the address and ensure it reached the right person. Tomlinson searched the keyboard for an underused symbol and alighted on the @. Using the @ to join name and computer, Tomlinson wrote the first email and sent it through the Arpanet -- the @ sign was given a new purpose in life. 

“As online communication has developed, the @ has become the standard way of addressing an email, joining the user name to the mail server. In this way it has become linked to an address or destination, and so is now also used in front of a person's username or handle on lnstagram or Twitter (for example, you can find me @nonfictioness). Likewise, it is often used online as an abbreviation: 'c u @ the pub'. With the advent of online trolling, people have now taken to writing sometimes controversial opinions on social media and then adding the caveat 'Don't @ me' to try to prevent other users from replying directly, the implication being that they don't care what you think of their opinion (which, while a nice idea, rarely has the desired effect). Thanks to the omnipresent language of the Internet the @ is now at home on computer keyboards all over the world. The symbol's name may differ but its meaning is now universal.”



Claire Cock-Starkey


Hyphens and Hashtags: The Stories Behind the Symbols on Our Keyboards


Bodleian Library, University of Oxford


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