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Where Did the @ Symbol Come From?

Why does it look like a snail?

By
Mignon Fogarty,
January 5, 2012
Episode #305

at symbolLast year I heard on NPR that the Museum of Modern Art had acquired the @ symbol for its Department of Architecture and Design collection, and that got me interested in the origin of the symbol. 

How Old Is the @ Symbol?

Every source I found seemed to have a different date for the origin of the at symbol, so I'm not going to commit to a certain date. Let's just say it was a long time ago—at least in the Middle Ages.

Many sources including the Ask Oxford website and a book called Letter by Letter: An Alphabetical Miscellany reported that the "at" symbol comes from shorthand for the Latin word "ad"—A.D.—which means “to, toward, or at." Scribes used to use it to list prices on invoices and accounting sheets, as in 12 eggs AT one penny per egg.

Names for the @ Symbol

The “at” symbol, by the way, is more formally known in English as the “commercial at,” presumably because of its original use in commerce. It has various names in other languages, and one of my favorites is Italian, in which it is playfully called the “snail.” Longtime listeners or people who have my books will know that in my example sentences, I like to use a character called Squiggly who is a snail. I’ve also seen the commercial at called a strudel and a cinnamon roll, which are both cute because it is shaped kind of like a rolled up pastry.

Why Is The A in a Circle?

Describing how we get from the Latin word "ad" to the “at” symbol, Michael Quinion explains on his website World Wide Words, that when the symbol was written by hand (I believe by scribes in the Middle Ages) “the upstroke of the ‘d’ curved over to the left and extended around the ‘a.’ Eventually the lower part fused with the ‘a’ to form one symbol." So that circle around the “a” is actually a remnant of the tall part of the letter “d.”

A more recent story comes from an Italian history professor who reported that he found an “at” symbol in a document written by a Florentine merchant in 1536.

The sentence reads "There, an amphora [an @] of wine, which is one thirtieth of a barrel, is worth 70 or 80 ducats."

Instead of meaning “at the price of,” the professor says the “at” was an “a” that stood for “amphora,” a measure of volume, that was wrapped in a flowing circle that extended from the letter, something that was common to the script of the time.

Regardless of the exact origin of the symbol, we now are more familiar with the “commercial at” because of technology.

Next: @ on Keyboards, in E-Mail, and on Twitter

@ on Keyboards

A book called Managing Web Usage in the Workplace tells of examining pictures of old typewriters and finding that it was relatively common for the @ symbol to be included on the keyboard starting around 1880.

@ for E-mail Addresses

Ray Tomlinson first used the “at” symbol to format an e-mail address using ARPAnet in 1971 for a message he sent to himself from one computer to another to test the system, and amusingly, he's repeatedly been quoted as saying he doesn't remember what message said—it was just some forgettable test message—because he didn't think it was a big deal at the time.

@ on Twitter

More recently, if you use Twitter, you know that you indicate a reply to someone by prefacing his or her name with the @ symbol, but it wasn't that way in the early days of Twitter. Users started putting @ before someone's name to indicate that it was a reply, and the people at Twitter noticed and wrote it into the system so that when you hit the reply link, it automatically inserts the @ symbol. Lately, it’s been showing up more as a general symbol to indicate a response. For example, people use it in the comments section to indicate that they’re responding to someone who posted earlier.

Next: How Do You Pronounce @?

When Do You Pronounce the @?

The use of an @ symbol before someone’s name has raised an interesting question about pronunciation: If the @ only indicates that something is a response, do you pronounce it? For example, if you were looking at a tweet addressed to me, and reading it out loud, would you begin by saying “at Grammar Girl” or simply “Grammar Girl”?

It’s something of an open question, but the examples in the newest Associated Press Stylebook seem to indicate that they would say the “at” because in writing they refer to a name styled with the at symbol as “an @reply” and a mention as “an @mention”—the use of “an” instead of “a” indicates that they’re pronouncing the @. Do you pronounce the @? Did you know that it meant a reply before this podcast? Leave a comment below to let me know.

And as for the museum acquiring the symbol, it's more of a metaphorical acquisition. Even though it can't be physically owned, they still think it's worth telling the story, so all they mean by “acquiring” is that they're setting up an exhibit. 

Image: At Sign, Steve Snodgrass at Flickr. CC BY 2.0 Generic.

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