Random thoughts on punctuation and other typography
(image: p.116 of ascii64 The @ Book, by Patrick Sneyd)
‘<dd>Common: at sign; at; strudel. Rare: ear; vortex; whorl; [whirlpool];
cyclone; snail; ape; cat; rose; cabbage; <commercial at><dd>‘
It’s Saturday afternoon and a young ill-informed child is trying to send an email. ‘The thing, the thing – where’s the funny circle thing?’ she squeaks at the laptop. We work out that she means the ‘at’ sign (sometimes called the ‘commercial at’ or even ‘atmark’), and I show her the keystroke. Gently I ask, ‘do you want to hear a funny story about that circle thing?’ and so begins another brief but beautiful father–daughter bonding experience.
The ‘at’ sign has no agreed English name, which is odd considering it’s used in every email and millions of tweets and online discussions every day. This seems to be an English-speaking oversight, as many countries have come up with evocative names for the @, based on the logogram’s splendid curves. In Denmark and Sweden it is ‘snabel-a’, meaning elephant’s trunk. Germans call it ‘klammeraffe’, which roughly translates as ‘clinging spider monkey’; in Italy it’s ‘chiocciola’ – snail – and in Czech and Slovak it’s called ‘zavináč’, or rollmop. Only the Inuit avoid the animal/food allusions, playing it safe with ‘aajusaq’: ‘something that looks like “a”‘.
There are various theories about the origins of the symbol, the most likely being that it’s shorthand for the Latin word ad, meaning ‘at, toward, by, about’. Medieval monastic scribes often made abbreviations of common words as they had to hand letter hundreds of religious manuscripts – shortening words (such as
& for and) therefore saved time, space, ink, papyrus and other materials. This medieval @ probably looked like a lower case ‘d’: ∂, and you can still see the basis of that shape in its modern form. Another theory is the sign was invented by accountants, and is a ligature between the first letter of the words ‘at’ and ‘each’, so that @ is actually an ‘a’ encircled by a lower case ‘e’.
According to history professor Giorgio Stabile from La Sapienza University of Rome, Italy, the first credible and documented appearance of the symbol dates from 4 May 1536, when Italian merchant Francesco Lapi noted in writing the arrival of treasures delivered by Spanish conquistadors from their conquest of Peru. He used the symbol to refer to amphorae (from ‘amphora’, a vessel for wine) as a unit of measurement:
Francesco Lapi’s early use of the @ sign (image: http://bit.ly/1zKdTS0)
Lapi’s example is the first known use of the symbol as a character in its own right and with a distinct meaning. Over time the @ evolved to become a shorthand for ‘at’, and finally appeared on standard typewriters in the 1880s as a pricing shorthand. In 1894 it was defined for the first time in the American Dictionary of Printing & Bookmaking as the ‘commercial “a”’, meaning ‘each at’: i.e. ‘6 apples @ 50p each’. The first use of the symbol as a delimiter can be dated to 1971, when computer scientist Ray Tomlinson sent the first email.
‘Tomlinson performed a powerful act of design that not only changed the @ sign’s
significance, but enabled it to become an important part of our identity
in relationship and communication with others.’
— Paola Antonelli, senior curator of the Department
of Architecture and Design, MoMA
The Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design added the @ sign to its collection in March 2010 (even though they couldn’t physically acquire an actual @), in what they described as a momentous, elating acquisition. The symbol earned its place due to its ‘elegance, economy and intellectual transparency’ and for its services to communications. In a similar display of reverence, the Chinese State Language Commission reported that a Chinese couple attempted to name their son @ in 2007, pronouncing it ‘ai ta’ which apparently sounds like ‘love him’ in Mandarin. Unlike MoMA, the Commission’s decision on this idea is not documented. In May 2004 the @ sign was added to the official Morse code character set: ‘• — — • — •’, formed by running together the dots and dashes that make up the letters ‘A’ and ‘C’. Significantly, this was the first addition of a new character to Morse code since the end of the First World War.
(original image: p.111 of ascii64 The @ Book, by Patrick Sneyd)
Some people (not me, oh no) are irritated that the sign doesn’t have an agreed English name considering its long history and current ubiquity. There have been vague online campaigns to assign a proper tag: asperand, ampersat or apetail have each been mooted, but none caught on. John Lloyd, the British TV producer of QI, used that BBC quiz show to raise support for the name ‘astatine’ for the sign, as this radioactive element has the chemical symbol At; art historian Frances Marks suggested ‘van Gogh’s ear’. Sadly both of these figurative and creative suggestions again came to nothing.
(I’m not sure what the message of this clip is, but I’m sure it illustrates my point)