The indispensable @

by Colin McIntosh

at signOne of the least used keys on the keyboard is now one of the most indispensable: @.

It is read as at, but the symbol itself has no proper name in English. The at symbol seems to be the only generally recognized way of referring to it.

Traditionally it was used in financial records to show the price of a particular item on a list, and read as at:

50 units @ £4.75

Now it has found a new life as the symbol that joins the name of a person or a department in an organization to a domain name to make an email address:

dictionary@cambridge.org (read as dictionary at cambridge dot org)

It is also used in microblogging and social media, for example on Twitter, before the username, so that publicly readable replies can be sent:

@CambridgeWords

The symbol originated in Spain, where it is called arroba, from an Arabic word for a standard weight. Many languages use an animal name to refer to the letter. It can be a snail (Italian and Welsh), a monkey (Polish and Bulgarian), a mouse (Chinese), a duck (Greek), or a dog (Russian and many languages of the former Soviet Union). It can also be a local foodstuff: rollmops in Czech and Slovak, strudel in Hebrew, or various curl-shaped pastries in Catalan, Bulgarian, and Swedish. The most poetic is perhaps moon’s ear in Kazakh. Various suggestions have been made for English (mostly rather less poetic), including arobase (from French) asperand, ampersat, and astatine – but none of these has caught on. Two of these are based on ampersand, the & symbol that was originally a way of writing et (“and”) in Latin.

Symbols that represent ideas in this way are called ideograms (or ideographs), although it could be argued that @ and & represent words, rather than ideas. Other ideograms include our numerals 0 – 9, the recycling symbol ♻, and many Chinese characters and ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Several other exotic typographical symbols have recently entered the Cambridge dictionary, thanks to their use in internet communication and computer programming. These include angle brackets: <> ; pipe | ; backtick ` ; hash # (also called the pound sign in North America); and caret ^. Forward slash / and backslash \ are also fairly recent arrivals – slash used to be called stroke or oblique in British English.

All are to be found on your computer keyboard, although you probably use them less than @.

 

8 thoughts on “The indispensable @

  1. Tatiana Balandina

    The article is extremely informative. We don’t often think of such terminology, don’t compare it with our own language. It’s really very interesting. Thank you.

  2. roppasaverio@ig.com.br

    I am very interested in receiving your posts Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog. Could you kindly sent them, from now onwards, to the another e-mail address:

    marinerts37@gmail.com. Many thanks.

    Saverio Roppa

    Em 15/03/2016 08:00, About Words – Cambridge Dictionaries Online blog escreveu:

    > colinjmcintosh posted: “by Colin McIntosh​ One of the least used keys on the keyboard is now one of the most indispensable: @. It is read as at, but the symbol itself has no proper name in English. The at symbol seems to be the only generally recognized way of referring to” > >

  3. Pingback: The indispensable @ | 21st-century words

  4. Ahmed Yosri

    Great topic! .. and FYI: the Spanish term you mentioned; “arroba” is pronounced exactly as in Arabic (with a slightly more emphasis on the last ‘a’). It literally translates as “The Quarter”, and it means “a quarter of” OR: “one quarter of”. I never before knew that it’s used in Spanish just like in Arabic. Thanks for the info!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s