A COUPLE OF YEARS ago I contemplated a home exchange with a couple in Berlin. In the process, I had a telephone conversation with one Uwe Mueller during which we talked about our respective hometowns and the previous home exchanges we had experienced. As with many Germans, Mr. Mueller’s English was quite proficient but we did hit a snag at one juncture. I asked him for his email address, to which he replied, “It’s umuellerklammeraffegmail.com.” I wasn’t sure if Mr. Mueller had just sneezed or was swearing at me so I asked him to repeat what he had said; it emerged unchanged. After a pause of several seconds he checked with someone near him and told me “apparently in North America you call it ‘at.’”
Now while the German word klammeraffe is not as long as freundschaftsbezeihungen (“demonstrations of friendship”) or even the more diminutive volksgemeinschaft (“people’s community”), it is still quite a mouthful compared to “at.”
Yet the word’s length is not as remarkable as its meaning; klammeraffe translates as “spider monkey,” and if you find it peculiar that Germans compare the @ sign with an animal, be aware that the rather pedestrian use of “at” in the English-speaking world is the exception, not the rule. For example, Germany’s neighbour the Netherlands refers to the symbol as api, short for apenstaartje (monkey’s tail), whereas the Italians call it a chiocciola and the French sometimes use petit escargot, both meaning “little snail.” Danes and Swedes call the sign snabel or snabela (elephant’s trunk) and Finns call it miau (cat tail).
Keeping up this zoo-centric theme, Czechs see the symbol as a rolled-up fish filet, Greeks as a duckling, Hungarians and Thais as a worm, Ukrainians and Russians as a dog, and the Chinese as a mouse. Still other countries envisage the symbol as tasty foods; Norwegians designate it as kanelbulle (spiral-shaped cinnamon cake); Israelis and Austrians respectively call it shtrudel and strudel (a rounded layered pastry with a sweet filling).
Spaniards seemingly have a different conception; in Spain it is called arroba, an ancient unit of weight of approximately 25 pounds, and a word derived from the Arabic rub (pronounced roob) meaning “a quarter part.” But as the Spaniards were unaware of the meaning given by the British to the @ symbol, where it only designated how much a unit cost (e.g., 10@ £5 meant 10 units of a product at a price of five pounds sterling), they supposed the symbol was a unit of weight, as it was used as such already in Spain. In Portuguese-speaking countries the same word is used and is also based on a unit of weight, slightly higher than the Spanish one.
Before computer networks were interconnected, email could only be used to send messages to users of the same computer. But once computers began to talk to each other over networks, things got more complex. Electronic communications systems needed to understand to whom and where electronic mail should be sent — just like the postal system. This problem was solved in 1971 by Ray Tomlinson, a Boston researcher at the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, a precursor to today’s internet. (Tomlinson died last year at age 74.) He selected the symbol @ as a separator between an individual’s name and their location in an email address. So while the “at” or “commercial at” (the official name for the symbol in the ASCII character set) designation may not be as evocative as the metaphorical ones used in some languages, it is a logical one.
Incidentally, the @ symbol was not included on the keyboard of the earliest typewriters, but it made its debut in an 1889 model and the commercially successful models of the Underwood No. 5 starting in 1900. It is commonly believed that Tomlinson chose @ as the standard email symbol because it was not used often, even though it sat on every keyboard.
In any case, while Tomlinson helped popularize the @ symbol, in reality it has enjoyed a long history. It was first used in the seventh century, where it was a way of creating with one stroke the word ad, which means “at” or “to” in Latin.
Along its path it has enjoyed other meanings. For example, Venetian traders used it to signify an amphora, a terracotta vessel that was a symbol of measurement. But it always kept its meaning of “at” and was often used as an accounting and commercial abbreviation meaning “at a rate of.” For example, the accounting notation “10@£15” would designate ten units at the price of 15 pounds per unit.
Most likely inspired by the ampersand — the name for the & symbol — the designations ampersat and asperand have been suggested as names for the @ symbol, but neither has received much support and Tomlinson’s “commercial at” is still the preferred official term.
Howard Richler’s latest book, Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit, was published in 2016.