The Story of @

Posted on: August 16, 2010

The "At" Symbol

The "At" Symbol

How many times a day do you see or use the @ symbol? Think of all the emails you send and receive each day. If you are on social websites such as Twitter, how often do you use an @ symbol to link to or refer to another user?

Each day, millions of people directly or indirectly use the @ symbol on the Internet and in emails. The @ symbol has become one of the icons of our age.

How did this symbol achieve such importance?

Just as all words have a past, symbols do too. Their origins may be murky or fully verifiable. Their path from the past to our time may be a pure, clean arc of a single meaning or usage or, instead, perhaps a meandering, sketchy tale of multiple meanings and dodgy stopovers in many countries, fields and professions. Rare is the word or symbol that arrives on our doorstep without baggage.

And so it is with the @ symbol. Where exactly did it originate? And why?  It seems to be of deliciously obscure provenance. Although no one has entirely solved the “whodunit” or offered proof beyond all doubt, there are several contenders. Here are two.

It Was the Scribes, They Claim

In one camp, there are those linguists who argue that it all started with Latin scribes around the 6th or 7th centuries CE. It seems those scribes might have intended to create a shortcut for the Latin word ad, which means at or to, in order to decrease their number of pen strokes.

Combining the two letters in such an elegant way, with the upstroke of the “d” curving gracefully up to the left and then all the way around the plump little apple-shaped body of the “a,” satisfied the scribes’ requirements in one pen stroke and in a visually appealing manner.

Now, it might seem odd to us today to shorten such a small word, but in fact the Latin word ad was very frequently used in manuscripts, just as its English counterpart is widely used today in various media. So while ad is a short word, its rate of usage apparently made it a candidate for compression (nor, by the way, was it the only word shortened into a symbol).

And note the words scribe and manuscript. The few people who were literate and could write at that time used quill pens, or something similar, which they had to dip often into a well of ink. Write, dip, drip, fix. Try repeating that eight or more hours a day.

Since the printing press would not be invented for many centuries yet, the scribes had to painstakingly hand-write every letter of every word in every document, which would have given new meaning to the concept of “production” when someone wanted to publish a book: “You want how many copies!??”

If you had been one of those scribes, laboriously copying out manuscripts, wouldn’t you also have wanted to find a way to reduce the number of pen strokes per word? Especially for common, frequently used words?

No, No, It Was All About Commerce

Another top theory of origin among linguists is that traders, merchants and others involved in commerce in the 18th century CE developed the @ symbol to denote price per unit.

For example, if you saw a sign that read Apples @ 10¢, it meant the apples were 10¢ each. So if you bought eight apples, the total bill would be 80¢.

But not so fast. In 2000, a professor of the history of science at La Sapienza University (Italy), named Giorgio Stabile, apparently discovered 14th-century documents that used the @ symbol to denote a measure of quantity, the amphora, a word of Greek origin meaning jar. Merchants of the day used the amphora, a standard-size container, to carry wine and grain. According to professor Stabile, the form of the symbol derived from the uppercase “A” embellished with the florid Florentine script, and the meaning of “at the price of” stemmed from its association with the amphora. In this scenario, the @ nicely conflates the “a” at the beginning of amphora and the idea of the price of a standard measure.

Other theories about commercial origins abound, some placing the invention of @ in the Italian Renaissance, or giving credit to the Spanish, the Portuguese, the Arabs, the Greeks, or the Norman French.

Naturally, there are those who say that this commercial usage of the symbol is all well and good, whenever it actually began, but that business was just borrowing, updating and recycling what the Latin scribes had created.

In any case, the symbol’s place in commerce and business was solidified when it appeared as a standard key on typewriters of the 1880s.

The Rise to Email Phenomenon

When Ray Tomlinson developed the first electronic mail system in 1972, he needed a way to separate the user’s name from the machine and domain names. Because the character could not appear in any name, he could not select a letter or a number. And if the character could also indicate the user’s location, wouldn’t that be optimal?

Legend has it that Mr. Tomlinson perused his keyboard, a Model 33 Teletype. In a stroke of insight and perhaps genius, he decided to go with the @ symbol, which duly appeared in the first electronic mail message he sent.

In that first, single message address, the idea of “user name at location name,” encoded by Mr. Tomlinson as “username@locationname,” became established as the standard for electronic mail.

As email and Internet systems developed, the fortunes of the @ symbol rose along with them. Today, although the symbol is known by many names around the world, it stands as the most recognized emblem of email systems and social media, worldwide.

Want More Information about the @ Symbol?

If you are intrigued by the history of the @ symbol and would like to know more, be sure to check out these sites: Webopedia, Wikipedia and AtSymbol.

To listen to a fascinating podcast about the @ symbol, originally broadcast by Studio 360 on August 13, 2010, on National Public Radio, go to Studio 360 episodes for August 13 and scroll down the page to the title Design for the Real World: @Elizabeth Lexleigh   LexPower  The Write Ideas


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