Why does it look like a snail?
Last 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